Tag Archives: Walt Disney

Long live the Queen

elsa2

Amy Good kicks off today’s musings with her thoughtful post about the challenge in writing supernaturally empowered characters.  While it’s important reading for anyone crafting a story that includes such elements (guilty), it got me thinking again about Frozen and what a pivotal moment for the cinematic portrayal of women the character of Queen Elsa actually is.  You’ll forgive the inklings of hyperbole creeping into that statement, but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way.  (For additional insightful reading on Frozen and its depiction of women, be sure to check out Emmie Mears’ take at Searching For SuperwomenDebbie Vega’s at Moon in Gemini and Liz Hawksworth’s at The Stretch for Something Beautiful.)  I touched on this briefly in my original take on the movie, written the evening after I saw it, but as the movie has sloshed around my subconscious for the last several weeks, and I’ve listened to “Let It Go” more times than should be healthy, I’ve realized that there’s a lot more here worth exploring in greater detail, and some of these other great posts have crystallized – pardon the obvious pun – my thinking on the subject.

To delve more deeply into this character, we have to go back to her long-simmering genesis.  Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen has been around since 1845, and Walt Disney himself had long wanted to give the classic tale the animated treatment.  The stumbling block was always the title character, how to create a compelling version of her that would give modern audiences something to sink their teeth into, and several attempts fell by the wayside and were abandoned.  Even as the movie finally got underway in the latter half of the 2000’s, the story team still couldn’t crack the Queen.  The first stroke of inspiration involved making her the sister of the protagonist, Anna.  The second, and indeed the masterstroke, was in stripping Elsa of her villainy.  If you look at some of the original character concepts (just Google it, there are too many hyperlinks in this post already), Elsa was going to be your tired and typical wicked witch, with Anna presumably forced to fight and ruefully defeat her.  And then, so the legend has it, the songwriting team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez brought a draft of Elsa’s anthem “Let It Go” to the producers – planned originally as a “look how eeeeevil I am” strut in the vein of similar ditties belted out by Disney villains past.  Of course, that’s not what the Lopezes delivered.  “Let It Go” is a triumphant refrain of self-realization, not something you’d hear from the lips of Ursula, Gaston, Jafar, Scar or any of the Disney baddies that had come before.  Surely, then, Elsa could remain a good person, grappling with her own fears of who she’s become, and figuring out a way to integrate all the parts of her soul into a complete and confident being.  And to give that arc to a woman with magical powers is a blast of fresh Arctic air.  Full marks to screenwriter/co-director Jennifer Lee.

The wicked witch is one of the most regrettable archetypes in literature, because it originates from a fundamental place of (male) discomfort with the idea of powerful women.  We dudes have to face it and deal – women are always going to have powers that we don’t.  They can bear children, i.e. create life; short of bad Arnold Schwarzenegger comedies we’re forever out of luck on that one.  To be completely candid and even a little NC-17, women can arouse us physically in a way we can’t really reciprocate.  And even more to the point, we will never figure them out, no matter how long we spend in their company, how many writings of theirs we read, how many times we beat our heads against the wall when they do something completely unexpected and seemingly out of character.  They’re piercingly right with that old refrain – we just don’t understand.  We won’t.  And everyone knows what the typical human reaction is to something we don’t understand.

I recall reading once that the biggest driver of the persecution of witches in medieval Europe was that era’s version of the American Medical Association, that is, the assorted doctors of the time who were peeved that women were doing better at healing the sick with herbs and other natural lore than they were with the presumably university-endorsed “leech and bleed” treatment.  Invoking a mistranslated Bible verse and calling every second woman a witch was, to them, simply an effective way of eliminating the competition in the medical field.  To say nothing of how many other men probably hurled the charge when an innocent woman failed to return their romantic advances.  The witch became a catchall for everything men didn’t like about the opposite gender, and slithered her way into the darkest pages of the fairy tales that endure to this day.  Always out to cause mischief and throw up barriers to true love and occasionally eat a child or two.

To be fair, Disney’s earliest animated efforts did little to dispel this archetype.  Snow White had the Evil Queen, Sleeping Beauty had Maleficent, both characters of tremendous power, beauty and irredeemable evil (noteworthy that Maleficent’s name comes from the Latin maleficium, which means “wrongdoing.”)  We also had the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, and a long, verging on infinite line of fantasy films both sumptuous and cheap featuring scantily-clad and/or hideous magical ladies waylaying our heroes with a combination of spells and wiles and cackling laughter, leading up to Tilda Swinton’s White Witch in the Narnia series, Charlize Theron’s Queen Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman, and Mila Kunis’ Theodora and Rachel Weisz’s Evanora in Oz: The Great and Powerful.  Such an easy path to tread for screenwriters half-assing their way through a script assignment.  What is the usual fate of these legions of empowered women?  Death.  Depowering and humiliation from time to time, but usually death.  It’s what they get for stepping outside the natural order, for interfering with the cause of love and freedom, baby.  When it’s at the hands of a man with a sword, the metaphor becomes even more painfully obvious.  Man conquering the unremitting darkness that is woman with his you-know-what.  Cue the Viagra ads.

In Frozen, Elsa’s cryokinetic powers are vast, verging on goddess-level.  We’re not just talking a blast of ice cubes here and there.  She blankets an entire kingdom in an eternal winter.  In the “Let It Go” sequence, she builds a stunning palace of ice with a few waves of her hand and stamps of her feet.  She can defend herself easily against a squad of armed men, and most importantly, she can create life.  With a mere flicker of her magic she conjures Olaf the snowman, an autonomous being with his own unique personality, and also her hulking hench-monster Marshmallow (who, if you stayed till the end of the credits, proves he has a softer side as well.)  To my recollection, the last time a female character as powerful as Elsa appeared on screen was 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand.  Like Elsa, Jean Grey in that movie was a woman born with incredible abilities she couldn’t control, and also like Elsa, attempted to live within constraints placed upon her by men, until her powers eventually exploded and injured those she cared most about.  Of course, how did that all work out?  Predictably, Jean turned evil, disintegrated a bunch of people, and had to be put out of her misery by a man with metal claws (more below-the-belt symbolism), after she begged him to kill her.  Impaled through the cold, dark heart just like the wicked witch deserves.

Frozen does not end with Elsa being saved or murdered by a man, or losing her powers.  It ends, ironically, with Elsa becoming even more powerful – gaining strength from her sister’s love and learning to thaw what she has frozen.  Achieving a balance and serenity within herself.  One of the most delightful little moments from the end of the movie is watching Elsa create a skating rink for her subjects and them having fun with it, because it signifies that she hasn’t had to sacrifice what makes her special to find acceptance from the outside world.  In her review, Debbie mentioned that some critics of the movie have suggested that Elsa should have had a love interest.  I can’t think of anything that would have so wrecked the essential message.  A woman’s journey to realizing her power is one she has to take on her own, without some barrel-chested dingus patting her hand and telling her “there, there.”  Ultimately, Anna’s sacrifice was about showing Elsa she needed to love herself, and that she could, because her sister would always have her back.  I can’t see that having worked as well or resonated as deeply if Anna was Andy.

What is Frozen telling us menfolk, then?  That a powerful woman isn’t someone we should fear, or try to cage.  That she isn’t someone we need to conquer or subdue in any way.  That we do best to help her figure out who she is and the extent of what she can do by staying the @#$@ out of her way.  And that the greatest thing we can do when she uses that power is cheer.

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Save the father, save the world

mrbanks

“Winds in the east, mist coming in, like something is brewin’, about to begin… Can’t put me finger on what lies in store, but I fear what’s to happen, all happened before.”

First uttered on screen by Dick Van Dyke in 1964, those words are whispered again by the unlikely voice of Colin Farrell as Saving Mr. Banks begins, over vistas of turn-of-the-last-century Australia and the dream-lost face of the young Helen Goff, who will grow up to become author P.L. Travers and the creator of Mary Poppins.  In short order we leap forward from the idyll to early 1960’s England, where the adult Travers (Emma Thompson) remains, after 20 years of attempts by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to purchase the film rights from her, stubborn in her determination to avoid having her beloved creation bowdlerized by uncouth Americans who don’t seem to understand what the story is about, or, more importantly, what it means to her.  Drawn in for the moment by the allure of some much-needed funds, Travers agrees to fly to Los Angeles to work with the creative team on the screenplay for Mary Poppins – “work with” meaning shoot down almost every single idea – while resisting Disney’s personal charm offensive.   The unstoppable force meets the immovable object, and as the movie proceeds along two time-separated narratives, we see the girl trying to save her treasured father from his deterioration, and the woman fighting to preserve his memory from people she thinks are only interested in exploiting it for the sake of a mediocre cartoon.

Much like the movie whose conception it depicts, there are no villains in Saving Mr. Banks; only goodhearted people attempting to do the right thing, whether it is Farrell as Travers’ father reacting to every setback with a twinkle in his eye and spring in his step, or the increasingly exasperated but always smiling screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and composers Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) struggling to meet the impossible conditions put forth by the uncooperative Travers during interminable meetings.  Particularly touching is the relationship that develops between Travers and her sunny limo driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti); while first treating him as an ill-informed Yankee, she comes to see him as a true friend, and is inspired to pass along to Ralph’s physically challenged daughter the proof that disabilities are not the same thing as limitations.  But misunderstandings abound, naturally, and this is probably the first screenplay in the history of Hollywood where the crisis point at the end of the second act involves whether or not penguins are to be animated.  (As an aside, it’s also the first screenplay to my knowledge where a character utters my last name:  checking into her room at the Beverly Hills Hotel only to find it’s been filled with Disney stuffed animals as welcome gifts, Travers shoves aside a Winnie the Pooh and grumbles “Ugh, A.A. Milne.”  I – what’s the expression – fangirl squeed?)

I’m a sucker for movies about Hollywood, particularly old Hollywood, and the attention to detail in recreating the feel of the Disney production offices (and Disneyland itself) of the early 60’s is impeccable.  The performances, especially Thompson’s, are elegant, the cinematography is lush, and the score is full of life and hope.  Magic exudes from each frame.  But despite the central conflict between Travers’ obstinacy and Disney’s persistence that is the focus of the trailers, the movie is about fathers, and the complex relationships we continue to have with them long after they are gone.  That is where Saving Mr. Banks packs its most powerful emotional punch.  Like Hamlet, the ghost of the father looms in every scene – Travers Goff, the man who helped the young “Ginty” unlock her imagination and set her on the path to becoming a storyteller, honored posthumously in her choice of surname for her writing career.  Befuddled by the author’s seemingly irrelevant demands on the script, articulated by frustrated Bob Sherman who pointedly queries, “What does it matter?”, Walt Disney initially misses the mark, thinking that Mary Poppins comes to save the children.  We have the benefit of hindsight, having watched, dozens of times, David Tomlinson as George Banks evolve from curmudgeonly drone to a man full of life and wonder and joy.  The children don’t even say goodbye to Mary Poppins when she leaves, but they don’t have to, as her spirit has found a new home in their own dear father.  Late in Saving Mr. Banks, Disney relates to Travers a tale of his own upbringing in wintry Missouri and of his difficult relationship with his hard-driving father Elias, and the two creative forces finally find their connection – a shared desire to redeem the old man.

Being someone’s child is taking on the responsibility of their legacy, willing or not.  In the movie, Ginty cannot understand why her beloved father is falling apart before her eyes, and she struggles to help him preserve his happiness and his dignity, even where her efforts are unintentionally harmful.  In creating the character of George Banks, P.L. Travers wanted (the movie posits, at least) to give her father the happy ending he could never find for himself.  When she sees him depicted on screen, and when she experiences the joy of the audience in watching him triumph, she weeps.  My father died when I was 11, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that a significant portion of why I do what I do is trying to ensure that his name is regarded in perpetuity as highly as I think it should be – the same name (though different family) P.L. Travers mouths onscreen.  He was the person I experienced stories with.  Reading to me, and with me, taking me to the movies, kindling a lifelong love of narrative and of imagination and promise lying within pages and celluloid.  He used to let me borrow his handheld dictaphone so I could record my own imaginary episodes of The A-Team (don’t ask).  He’d let me fill LP-sized floppy disks from his office computer full of chapters of an unfinished attempted novel about a boy and his racehorse.   And though he died long before I ever began to take writing seriously, every time I sit down at the keyboard I’m hoping that it will turn out to be something he would have liked, that he would have boasted to his friends and colleagues about.  (Knowing him, he’d boast about it even if it was an illiterate pile of tripe.)  And perhaps, beneath the veil of different characters in settings far removed from that available to a small-town attorney, I’m trying to give him his happy ending too.  In the theater, I felt in my soul that primal need of Travers to do right by her dad.  To save him.  And a tear escaped my eye as it did hers.

For too short a time, they’re our whole world.  Eventually, our chances to talk with them are gone, to ask them questions that never would have occurred to us while they were alive, questions we thought we’d have time for someday.  When we were sharing a beer after staining the back deck together on a hot Sunday afternoon.  When we were tossing the football back and forth between three generations upon park grass touched with the first autumn frost.  Those scenarios aren’t possible now, so we try to replicate them in fiction.  We forge characters who ask the questions we can’t, and let them seek their answers, secure as we type that they will reach their destination and achieve the closure that eludes us.  When the stake is so personal, we comprehend why P.L. Travers did not want to give Mary Poppins up.  Mary wasn’t a character, she was a mission.  So was Mickey Mouse for Walt Disney.  It’s not easy to abdicate such a soulful responsibility, to hand over a legacy.  I wouldn’t be the first to volunteer for that, would you?  However, there may come a time when I’m willing to let go, to share the father I knew with a world that deserves to know him the way I did.  I can only hope that it’s in a manner as befitting as Mary Poppins, or Saving Mr. Banks.

“Winds in the east, mist coming in, like something is brewin’, about to begin… Can’t put me finger on what lies in store, but I fear what’s to happen, all happened before.”

A Writer’s Journey Through Disney World: Part IV

spaceship earth

The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was Walt Disney’s prophetic vision of how we would be living today; a vast city thriving on the substance of its connections.  Walt wanted people to live and work there, but after his passing the Disney corporation decided they did not want to be in the business of running a municipality (ironically, Disney does operate its own municipality, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which manages the land on which the Walt Disney World Resort sits) and instead transformed Epcot into what they knew they could run well – another theme park.  Famously derided by the likes of none other than Homer Simpson, who wailed “it’s even boring to fly over!”, Epcot has long been an oddity, its ultimate purpose somewhat out of sync with the predominant Disney mantra of just coming to play and be a kid again.  Throughout the evolution of its exhibits from opening day in 1982 it’s always been the more mature, educational counterpart to the whimsy of the Magic Kingdom, the fairy dust harder to see in the polished presentation of the technology of the future and the many shades of our present.  This is the park for the grownups.  Epcot the Expo.  Divided into two distinct lands, Future World and World Showcase, and presided over by the imposing sphere (or overgrown golf ball, depending on your attitude) that is Spaceship Earth, Epcot is more linear; easier to find your way around, harder to lose your way amid winding paths.  Yet for some reason I never feel I’ve truly arrived at Disney until I’ve reached Epcot.

There is an indelible scent to Spaceship Earth that speaks to my distant memory like trumpets heralding the return of a long-absent pilgrim.  A peculiar brew of industrial strength air conditioning, special effects smoke and wheel lubricant combines into a unique visceral trigger, the feel of the arm of an old friend draped around my shoulder.  What is ostensibly Epcot’s signature attraction offers a journey back through 35,000 years of human history, with the voice of Judi Dench guiding you from a frozen plain where primitive man hurls spears at mammoths in unforgiving darkness, through the development of written language and the spread of civilization across the planet made possible by the phenomenon of communication.  Drifting past animatronic humans painting glyphs on cave walls, an Egyptian slave pounding out reeds into papyrus, toga-clad Greeks delivering a lecture on mathematics and Arab scholars sharing opinions over a hookah, anyone who calls himself a writer cannot fail to appreciate the significance of what is unfolding before him and the small, yet important part that he plays in this ongoing saga.  (He is particularly moved when he sees Gutenberg examining the first printed copy of the Bible.)  Humanity defines itself by the sharing of its ideas, the stories we tell to each other and the method by which those stories are passed on, long beyond our mere mortal existence.  A mind raised in the presence of the Internet can scarcely fathom the limitations faced by our ancestors, the incredible patience needed to etch history into brick and mortar.  We live in a time when it is easy, too easy some might argue, to fire off every thought to the entire world in real time, with a few keystrokes and a click, regardless of whether those thoughts have any lasting value.  The democratization of communication gives everyone equal ability to mouth off at the celebrity whose last movie we hated or whose political opinions make our skin crawl, without the need to consider our words first.  Passion drives communication as it never has before, as ink no longer needs to be bought by the barrel and rationed out only to the reasoned.  Spaceship Earth‘s main presentation ends with a facsimile of Steve Wozniak building a personal computer in his garage in the late 1970’s, but if the golf ball was bigger, perhaps it might be updated to advance thirty years and show us where we are now – to remind us that as trifling as they may seem in the moment, our communications are our legacy to the generations to come, as much as those dusty scrolls in the ancient libraries are the legacy of those who preceded us.  Every precious word is written into the future.  One way time travel, as it were.

Gutenberg, regrettably reading the comments.
Spaceship Earth‘s Gutenberg, regrettably reading the comments.

Beyond the confines of Future World lies World Showcase, the part the kids usually find boring.  It is a collection of eleven pavilions each dedicated to a different country and staffed exclusively by citizens of those far-flung lands.  Walking clockwise you can stroll through Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, The American Adventure, Japan, Morocco, France, the UK and finally Canada.   The pavilions are sponsored by private corporations from the countries in question (with the exception of Morocco, which is sponsored by its government) and each features a signature restaurant and souvenir shops, where other attractions may vary.  Mexico and Norway are the only two with actual rides inside, while Canada and China feature movies and The American Adventure contains an animatronic show about the founding of the United States.  If you’re walking by at the right time you may chance to encounter characters, buskers or live bands.  And for the littler ones staving off yawns there’s an interactive adventure based on Phineas & Ferb that encourages them to hunt through the Showcase in search of clues while their parents ponder purchasing a kimono in Japan or getting henna applied in Morocco.  You’d think that Canada would be my favorite of the undectet, shameless patriot that I am, eh (despite my non-adherence to the rules of Canadian English spelling), but my soft spot here at Epcot has always been for the UK.

Not that you can tell by this picture or anything.
Not that you can tell by this picture or anything.

Anglophile leanings aside, regardless that a Beatles tribute band can often be found performing in a nearby gazebo and Mary Poppins is usually on hand to advise on how to say supercalafragilisticexpialadocious backwards, what endears this place to me is a memory of my father attached indelibly to it.  About three or four times a day a group of improvisational players gathers in the square and invites members of the audience to take part in a humorous spoof, jape or vignette drawn from the annals of that fine British tradition of pantomime.  The first time we ever visited Epcot they picked my dad to join in, and I’m sure his boisterous manner didn’t factor into it at all (he may possibly have jumped up and down to volunteer).  When I walk these pink pathways and look around the corner past the pub I can see him again, reaching for the rafters as he crumples to the ground with a plastic sword tucked under his arm while the players narrate “And he died… OVER THERE!”, pointing six paces to his left and forcing him to get up sheepishly and walk over and do it all again.  Olivier he was not, but he loved being part of that sort of thing, ever happy to look a bit silly to give a stranger a laugh.  I come by a bit of it myself, to be honest, and I’m often the first to raise my hand when a similar enterprise arises.  It feels like paying tribute to the late great old man, and so walking through the faux-UK at Epcot is too akin to the metaphorical laying of flowers for someone long gone.

But back to Future World, to The Land, and the most popular ride in Epcot, Soarin’.  It’s not uncommon that the fast passes for this ride are all snapped within a scant few hours of the park’s opening, it remains that popular.  Seinfeld‘s Puddy, Patrick Warburton, plays the chief flight attendant welcoming you aboard your 5-minute trip over the scenic vistas of California, set to a majestic score composed by the late, legendary Jerry Goldsmith.  You are seated in “gliders” that are raised high above the floor before a massive screen, and the film that projects before you brings you sweeping through the clouds over San Francisco Bay, through Yosemite National Park, Napa Valley, Lake Tahoe, Monterey and Anza-Borrego to name but merely a few.  The experience is not only visual as you are also greeted by the scent of citrus as you sail over orange groves and of salt mist as you watch surfers tumble.  Goldsmith too modifies the arrangement of his theme as it evolves to give appropriate flavor to both the natural wonders and the human achievements rushing toward you, before a fireworks finale over Anaheim Disneyland introduced by Tinkerbell heralds your inevitable return to earth.

soarin

I’m uncomfortable with heights, so I had every reason to expect that this experience would leave me dizzy, gripping the sides of the glider in nauseated panic.  But just as the theme song to Firefly insists “you can’t take the sky from me,” even acrophobics can come to understand the pull the clouds can exert upon those of us fated to stand on solid ground and gaze up at them in resignation.  A few years ago when my wife and I were in the Dominican I signed on reluctantly to try parasailing, and only after putting it off to our last day.  What surprised me most as the parachute dragged us up, up and away, was the silence of the sky, the utter peace to be found less than a hundred meters up.  The ground is a noisy place and we’ve all become inured to the persistent drone of our 21st Century lives – mechanical equipment, inane conversations, half-assed music played on repeat.  Dial all that down to zero, banish the distraction, and you find a hitherto unknown treasure buried beneath – a chance to hear the spirit speak.  In a theme park dedicated to the wonders of communication, Soarin’ is a reminder of the greatest communication you can have, and one you owe to yourself sooner rather than later.  It’s a chance to think about who you are, the sum of your contradictions and the difference between the face you present to the world and the true shape of your inner self that lies hidden behind it.  To unite the sense of the present with the memory of the past and the dreams of the future and find that the answer leaves you smiling.

It’s possible that’s why Epcot completes the equation for me, why it’s what makes me feel most like I’m back.  I could go on at length about our experiences this time at some of the other favorite attractions; my son’s insistence on riding Mission: Space four times so he could fill each different crew position, his chance to have a conversation with an animated character from Finding Nemo at Turtle Talk with Crush.  Those family memories will be added to the extensive cache getting ever larger with each visit; complaining at the age of 8 that I didn’t like the food in the restaurant in the German pavilion (nein to your schnitzel!), watching IllumiNations around the World Showcase Lagoon on New Year’s 1990, listening to the Future Corps play the Jetsons Theme on a trip there with my high school band in 1993.  Ask me what I did a week or two before or after those individual moments and I’ll give you a master class in blank stares.  But decades later, here I am, transcribing these moments for the world and understanding that they, like those hieroglyphics on the pyramid walls, will now outlive me.  Writing into the future.  Just beyond the park entrance, before you reach Spaceship Earth, lie a series of obelisks on which Disney allowed guests to “Leave a Legacy” – a small, laser-etched photograph of yourself to be mounted there for all time.  The program was discontinued for whatever reason so a majority of space on the obelisks remains unfilled.  Yet it doesn’t really matter that I don’t have a picture of my face waiting to see me again at Epcot.  The true legacy is something I take with me when I go, etched in my mind, inspiring me far beyond the borders of Walt Disney World and Florida.

illuminations

A Writer’s Journey Through Disney World: Part III

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Tree of Life.

A week at Disney challenges even the hardiest of physiques; you spend an inordinate amount of time standing, walking on hard concrete, jammed into close quarters with folks who’ve perhaps not devoted as much of their energy to the maintenance of personal hygiene as you would prefer, and going from soul-sapping swamp heat to bone-chilling meat locker-grade air conditioning in as little as a single step.  There comes a moment, usually on day three, when you accept that the pain in your lower back and in your arches is inevitable.  Oddly, where at other vacation destinations you might resolve to spend the next day or two lounging in the pool to recuperate, at Disney World there is simply too much to do, too much to see, to let a mere trifle like physical discomfort discourage you from getting out to explore some more.  It was odd, reflecting on the trip from a few weeks’ distance, realizing that although we had about seven and a half days’ worth of park time, the list of what we didn’t get to do remains astonishingly long.  (Better to stoke the desire to return sooner rather than later, naturally).  A quick rewind back to Day Three, however, and our third park.

hungryturtle
Where hungry baby turtles awaited to devour us all.

Opened in 1998, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is the newest of the four major parks at WDW, and unless the Imagineers are hard at work on a secret project none of us know about, it is likely to be the last at the Orlando location, at least for some time.  Animal Kingdom is light on rides; apart from the rollercoaster Expedition Everest and the simulator Dinosaur, the park is dedicated to shows, educational exhibits and animal encounters.  The latter, then, is where it needed to shine, to give guests an experience they weren’t going to get at any of DAK’s elder siblings.  The Magic Kingdom had long featured the Jungle Cruise ride, but the biggest drawback to it was that the animals weren’t real (Walt wanted real animals, but wasn’t able to figure out the logistics of housing them safely).  Considering the preponderance of zoos in more easily accessible locations around the world, Disney had to do something extra special to compete in this realm.  What else, then, but to recreate a slice of Africa in central Florida?  And so we have Harambe Wildlife Reserve, and Kilimanjaro Safaris.  This enormous nature preserve (over 4 million square feet) is a Noah’s Ark of living African treasures, some critically endangered in their natural home across the ocean.  So typically scrupulous is the realism of the terrain, it’s said that when Disney finished building it, they invited a group of their African-born cast members for a glimpse of the attraction before it opened to the public.  Upon beholding the recreated savanna for the first time, one man burst into tears and declared, “I’m home.”  But you don’t have to have been born in Africa to feel a connection to this place.  My wife and I had visited countless times before; we would usually ride at least three times in any given day as the sights will always be different.  Normally, you board a diesel-powered truck with a dozen other guests for a 20-minute drive past the different habitats.  (There used to be a story along with it as you were supposedly on an expedition to chase down poachers, but this has been wisely pared back and ultimately removed to let the natural vistas take center stage.)  This time, with our son in tow, we decided to pay the extra cost to do the “Wild Africa Trek” – an intimate guided journey into the Reserve, to stuff the regular guests don’t get to see.  There were supposed to be eight of us, but for whatever reason the other five folks never showed – so we got a private, three hour tour.

hansthehippo
There is an untapped market, I feel, for hippopotamus dental floss.  “Hippoflossamus,” maybe?

Conservation was a passion of the late Walt Disney himself, and Harambe Wildlife Reserve is as much a research center as it is a chance for tourists to take pictures of elephants.  Our first stop along our hike was the hippopotamus pool and a meeting with Hans, the hungry hungry hippo.  Hans shares a habitat with his father Henry, and is segregated from the extensive female hippopotamus population in Harambe as “Disney isn’t in the business of breeding hippos.”  Said group of hippos is called a bloat, however, the collected group of females there is referred to as a pod as it isn’t considered Emily Post to make the indirect implication about a lady’s weight.  The researcher who was conducting Hans’ feeding clued us in to another amazing piece of trivia about these endearingly bulbous creatures:  in lieu of perspiration, the hippopotamus secretes something called “blood sweat,” a reddish fluid that contains natural sunscreen and antibiotic properties and is being studied extensively with the aim of recreating a similar substance for human use.  Not that any of that would matter to Hans as he gulped down one head of Romaine lettuce after another, leaving scarcely a leaf to dear old Dad.  I tell you, these young hippos with their sense of entitlement and their loud music…

overthegorge
“Drop them, Dr. Jones! They will be found… you won’t!”

Further on was a chance for us to channel our inner Indiana Jones and venture across a rope bridge hoisted high above a float of crocodiles, two of whom got into a scrap as we hovered over them.  One of the smallest crocodiles, nicknamed “Lethargic” for every reason you might expect, has had his hind leg spray-painted blue so the staff can ensure he’s getting an adequate supply of food, as he tends to be muscled out of the good stuff by his larger, snappier, more ill-tempered cousins.  Mindful of that scene in Live and Let Die when Bond is marooned on a small island surrounded by crocs and escapes by using their backs as stepping stones, I was deeply grateful for the cable and harness holding us securely a few feet out of range of their jaws.  I’m sure even Lethargic wouldn’t pass up a meal of fresh tourist.  However, ’twas not to be, and instead it was on to the second part of our tour, the drive across the savanna, where the animals are all (mercifully) herbivorous.

And occasionally amorous.
And occasionally amorous.

I’ve been trying to think of a good term to describe the savanna portion of Harambe since we’ve been back and the best I can come up with is that it’s an oasis of living miracles.  Existence for the Harambe animals in their native Africa is fraught with peril and predators (some, sadly, human-shaped) but here they are free to be themselves and live quiet lives, as nature might have intended in her most idealistic mood, indeed, had she been crafting a Disney version of herself.  And it always looks picture perfect; park staff go out every single night to replant literally thousands of bushes and shrubs that have been eaten and otherwise worn and torn throughout the previous day.  The giraffes are particularly placid and accustomed to seeing those rolling metal boxes full of the squat little hairless creatures pointing lenses at them all day long, and they are content to wander about and do their own thing, secure in their safety.  Stephanie, the affectionate reticulated giraffe on the left in the photo above, who can be distinguished by her Mickey-shaped mark just below her right ear, seems to be a born showgirl.  Midway through the savanna is an observation post called “Boma,” or “safe place,” where guests on the Wild Africa Trek can stop for lunch and a chance to commune with these wonderful creatures.  While we watched, Stephanie entertained us with a comedy of giraffe errors; trying to access the leaves on a high tree branch, she would pull it down with her tongue only to realize she had no arm to grab hold of it with, and watch sadly as it snapped back into place, pulling the tasty morsels far out of reach of even her statuesque neck.

As I stood beneath the hot sun, inhaling pure air, listening to nought but the steps of hooves on grasslands and smiling at Stephanie’s resolve, I felt an unfamiliar sense of ease, and of serenity, the aching feet and back retreating into distant memory.  I felt the sense of belonging to the earth that is absent in the confines of the cubicle, the glass and steel of the city street, the world of the schedule and deadline and insatiable hunger for material things.  Stephanie wasn’t stressing about her job, her kids, rent, politics or some lousy losing sports team (or hits and likes on her blog, for that matter).  She just wanted the leaves on the tree.  There was a purity to her intentions that was enviable, a clarity of purpose to be admired and replicated.  I thought about some of the other animals we saw that day, like the white rhinoceros who is expected to be extinct within the next five to ten years, because of poachers killing them for their supposedly-aphrodisiac horns (you’d boost your sex drive more by eating your own fingernails, not that this fact convinces anyone).  A deep sadness came over me at that moment, a fundamental recognition that we are Doing Life Wrong here on this planet.  We like to think we are the masters of everything, you know, that old Genesis verse about having dominion over all life, but has acting this way made us happy?  Human arrogance has only cluttered our minds with trivialities, and the more we obsess over them the more miserable we become.  It’s no revelation that a walk in the woods heals the soul.  We come from nature, and whenever we go back to it we are renewed.  And sometimes it takes a giraffe staring at you like you’re smoking something to realize this again.

"Lighten up, dude.  And could you help me with this branch?"
“Lighten up, dude. And could you help me with this branch?”

The lesson the writer takes from the Harambe Wildlife Reserve is to be a sculptor with your words – carve away the unneeded bits, the bullshit (or wildebeest shit if you prefer), and hone in on the plain emotional truth of the experience.  Within the phenomenon of basic connection lies a million untold stories, and all the flash and fancy vocabulary in the universe can’t substitute for the simplicity and universality of raw feeling, like the unbridled joy in watching giraffes at play.  You must be able to feel, fully and completely, before you can hope to transmit that feeling to someone else.  Until then, you’re just a tourist with a camera, recording the superficiality but not the substance, and your pictures will be no more enduring than the ones of drunken Uncle Ralph with the lampshade on his head at last year’s Christmas party.

In Part IV, we visit Epcot, and go Soarin’.