Ridley Scott’s The Martian is the Mars movie Disney should have made. It’s kind of remarkable, considering how much deep and important thought Disney once gave to Mars, that they didn’t get it first. Given all the legwork Werner Von Braun and his ilk did for the studio back in the 1950s, there’s no good reason that Disney’s two recent Martian expeditions should have been such expensive, baffling and generally unsatisfying projects. Disney has made films like The Martian before: what are the National Treasure films, if not a tribute to Boy Scout training and Yankee ingenuity? Just make a National Treasure, but set it on Mars. Drop Nicolas Cage in the Cerberus Province with a years’ worth of beef jerky and send his ride home without him. It’s actually a plan that the film industry is working on right now, though they might forget to film it.
This brings us, naturally, to EPCOT. It’s the weird uncle of Disney’s Florida holdings, a park modeled on world expositions—the last one of which to open stateside did so more than 30 years ago. For a quarter-century or more, Walt Disney World has received visitors who crowd into EPCOT without fully understanding what in the hell it’s supposed to be. Flummoxed by Walt Disney’s untimely death, his people delicately set aside his plans for a future Waltopia and went back to what they knew and understood: They rebuilt the 1964 New York World’s Fair, right down to the big metal ball.
That’s probably why Disney has no earthly idea what to do with EPCOT now. How do you get people excited for a cultural touchstone that hasn’t been seen in this country since 1984? And how to you appeal to out-of-country guests who’ve maybe been to recent Expos in Shanghai, Milan or Yeosu, and who aren’t impressed with Ellen DeGeneres’ fumbling attempts to understand sustainable energy? It’s a real goddamn problem, and Disney apparently still doesn’t know how to remedy it. Walt Disney World’s other three parks are all receiving huge, game-changing capital improvements: Magic Kingdom has its plus-sized Fantasyland, Hollywood Studios is getting Lucas’d, Animal Kingdom Avatar‘d. By comparison, EPCOT’s 2016 resolutions are to re-skin the Norway pavilion’s Maelstrom boat ride with a story that has only a desultory connection to Norway, and to make the popular Soarin’ ride, y’know, bigger-er.
Technology isn’t the problem. Nifty though the ride mechanisms of Universal’s big-deal Harry Potter rides may be, Disney has already arguably matched them with the giant slot cars of Test Track and Radiator Springs Racers, the RFID-guided vehicles of Mystic Manor and Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters, and the relatively simple mechanism of Soarin’. (That’s saying nothing of the other ride mechanics Disney has pioneered or successfully adapted to new mediums, including those behind Tower of Terror, Expedition Everest and, hell, the Haunted Mansion. The humble Omnimover, turning people into moving cameras since 1967.) The problem isn’t that the hang-time shenanigans of Soarin’ are passé, or that we can duplicate the Circle-Vision 360° experience with an app we can download free to our phones. The problems are in theme, story and cultural relevance, three things Imagineering is supposed to be good at.
For an example, I’ll skip over the two most obvious choices—Universe of Energy and the despairing wreck that is Journey Into Imagination—and consider the case of Reflections of China, the Circle-Vision 360° travelogue that replaced Wonders of China in 2003. Wonders needed badly to be replaced; I mean, gosh, China’s changed just a little bit since 1982. But given an opportunity to make something truly new and different, Disney acted clumsily: They paid just enough for a few minutes of new footage and, inexplicably, kept the Li Bai storyline from 1982, replacing the original actor—the great Keye Luke—with a double who doesn’t resemble Luke even in long shots. (Gone, too, is Luke’s splendid voiceover, replaced by a scab who doesn’t possess a tenth of Luke’s avuncular charm.)
Look, I’m just going to say it: There are at least a dozen Chinese actors recognizable to American audiences, from Michelle Yeoh to Steven Chow to Jackie Chan. Any one of these would make a suitable narrator for a 21st Century China, for a country that’s rapidly moving beyond our perceptions both good and bad. (And about the technology: I’d be willing to bet that somebody has already rigged up a drone-mounted, lightweight digital Circle-Vision 360° rig in their garage, something with greater maneuverability than a chopper. Just as long as we’re committed to the 360-degree thing.) The sequel to Wonders of China could have been entertaining, visually-dazzling and, y’know, informative.
(Though to be fair, I don’t suppose I should have expected quality filmmaking from last-gasp Eisner regime Disney; Reflections of China is imbued with just as much quality and sense as the Eddie Murphy Haunted Mansion and Disney California Adventure 1.0. That Disney did only as much for China as necessary to get Hong Kong Disneyand open, and to keep the film distribution pipes clear.)
EPCOT’s biggest current failings are in theme, story and cultural relevance, three things Imagineering is supposed to be good at.
Moving around the lagoon: Tromsø, Norway has an influential electronic music scene. The renewable energy sector of Germany is among the world’s most successful. Italy has a truly rich legacy of cinema, without which the likes of Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino probably wouldn’t exist as we know them now. And the United Kingdom is so very united that Scotland recently considered leaving it. EPCOT’s view of the world has always been sanitized and small, but now, in an age of Googling Up Stuff, its tiny planet schtick is at best embarrassing, at worst xenophobic. And when you take the extra step of replacing a country’s entire culture with an animated landscape and population created in Burbank … well, there’s really no point to having a World Showcase at all, if your idea of travel is getting people to take your cruise lines to man-made beaches, or simply to drive across town to see Frozen on Ice.
And it’s not as if the restaurants and retail of World Showcase are picking up the slack:
The World Showcase – A lot has changed in my opinion from what it used to be. I remember when I was a kid I bought a little Mercedes model car, kind of like a HotWheels car but German. … I thought it was so neat, even (had) Made In Germany (written) on it. Nowadays, apart from the Japanese market (Mitsukoshi) every one of the stores in the countries have a bunch of crap. Want a keychain with Downton Abbey on it? They’ve got that in England. Do you need Maple syrup that’s available at Publix? They’ve got that in Canada. It’s pretty sad that every country just sells t-shirts with what the country is known for, not actual products from the country.
We ate at Via Napoli in Italy & were pretty disappointed with the food/price/service. We told the hostess we were celebrating a birthday & she made note of it but nothing was done. We had some pastries from Les Halles Boulangerie-Patisserie, they weren’t thing to get excited over. Maybe the food is better during Food & Wine time (which we missed by a few days, unfortunately).
That was TripAdvisor reviewer Billy H, a visitor from Nashville, Tennessee, in a review titled “EPCOT needs to go back to its original mission statement.” It’s not just the Disnerds blog who’ve noticed EPCOT sliding into irrelevance; the marketplace is beginning to catch on.
Back to The Martian. One of the things I liked best about it was the easygoing, unfussy way in which Ridley Scott presented the future. In a way, it’s the bright flipside to what he did with Blade Runner in 1982; he identified which present-day trends were likely to expand, and turned up their volume while leaving everything else untouched. Meaning: Rick Deckard hunts down advanced artificial intelligence in a heavily globalized Los Angeles while still eating modern-day street food and drinking brown liquor from regular glasses, and the crew of Ares III listens to seventies disco and maintains a treadmill regimen. The future isn’t about a whole-scale change to the way we live; it’s all about incremental change. And incremental change is easy to portray and maintain, if you do it right the first time.
EPCOT 1.0 embodied this principle much better than its present-day iteration does. One of the first things to wow me when I first visited in 1983, aside from the sheer scale of the place, was its interactive features. The WorldKey information kiosks were the first touchscreens I had ever seen, and now that technology is on a device I carry with me (and probably look at too often). Ditto the voice-to-text technology of AT&T (in CommuniCore West, RIP) and the social media-style instant polling of Future Choice Theater (CommuniCore East, gone too soon). A new EPCOT doesn’t need to be conceptualized from the top down, beginning with the multimillion-dollar ride vehicle and a new warehouse-sized dodecahedron or whatever; it can begin with something as basic as showing off what’s new in UI, or sacrificing some of Germany’s retail space so the country can talk up its Energiewende. Or by simply committing to improving the quality of EPCOT’s dining and imported goods to a level slightly above Cost Plus.
It doesn’t need to be a billion-dollar improvement initiative, and it doesn’t need to wait for an EPCOT-themed movie to help visitors to understand the place. (This seems a good time to say that I was in tune with Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland until its dreary, exposition-heavy final third. The film’s showpiece “Pin-Ultimate Experience” sequence, buoyed by a Future World loop-ready Michael Giacchino score, reminds me of how I felt when I saw EPCOT for the first time. ) The future, and the world we live in, are concepts that are already familiar to every one of us; Disney only needs to make them personal again. Walt Disney’s original EPCOT was intensely personal, arguably being the world he wanted to live in. Disney’s current, cynical approach to EPCOT is worse than impersonal; it is personality-free, an empty vessel. And with the Frozen boat ride, the company is making it plain that EPCOT is about championing Disney’s own aspirations, not our own.
“If (kids) go to bed dreaming about science, they wake up with ideas,” a character says in Eric Stephenson’s graphic novel series Nowhere Men. Whenever Disney gets around to noticing EPCOT again, they should consider the dreams that EPCOT once hoped to inspire … even if some of those dreams were Made In Germany.