Thursday, August 31, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean Ride Update

(And while we're on the subject of Disneyland...)

By now it's probably filtered down to where just about anybody who gives a damn is aware of that the original Pirates of the Caribbean ride has been updated to include characters from the Gore Verbinski/Johnny Depp movie franchise. From what I can tell it looks like they've incorporated the new elements in a fairly clever and sequential way...
But! Naturally, being pretty much a purist, I don't think a lot of the whole idea.
However, Johnny Depp is a ...aheh...Disney Super-Star now, so like it or not, I can completely understand the desire for Disney to make more continued revenue on his likeness...but I just don't know if it works, or was really even that necessary. However, any update will usually have some aspect that is welcome change, and in this case it seems it's a much improved sound system --including the addition of over 2oo speakers to help separate and emphasize all the newly-recorded dialogue. That aspect of the changes is supposed to be quite dramatic. But the scenics?...I just don't know... and hopefully some of these photos officially released by Disney will help illustrate my point.

One of the first new additions you see on the ride is the face of Davy Jones from this summer's biggest hit Dead Man's Chest (above) who appears in midair on a mist screen that the boat sails right through as he issues warnings of dire peril awaiting those who dare to venture further.

The Jack Sparrow character is introduced into the animatronic Pirate world via a series of sequential vignettes. This is apparently the first time he is seen on the ride...ducking a couple of pirate guards by hiding amongst some dress mannequins.

And here's one of the actual Johnny Depp robots...looking an awful lot like the the man himself and moving in a spooky-real fashion.

And yas, as you can see here, The likeness is close enough to Johnny himself that Disney didn't pass on a chance for him and his animatronic doppleganger being photo-opted together. As the new figures were made from a life-mask of Mr. Depp the resemblence is quite striking (really his overly-white eye-whites are the only thing that gives him away). Upon closer inspection of the imagineers work Johnny --a little taken aback by the realism-- proclaimed "That's just insane."

Moving along...
If you've ever been on the ride you know that "the big room with the nearly full-size ship and the fort" is one of the mainstay set pieces... But what new and wondrous sight awaits our eyes in this room?

More robot celebrities! I love Jeffrey Rush's performance as the haunted and ruthless Captain Barbossa...but that doesn't mean I'm particularly excited about seeing his grizzled visage on board the Wicked Wench. Just another staple Disneyland moment gone forever I'm thinking. Which brings me to another point...not only is another iconic animatronic pirate out of work, but another familiar voice/over performance gone as well...

So, If anybody's gettin' screwed by this latest somewhat-radical ride retooling it's gotta be this guy.

One Mr. Paul Frees (1920-1986). He and Thurl Ravenscroft (your Ghost Host from the Haunted Mansion ride) originally provided almost every voice you hear in the various Disney park Pirate rides. That's Paul doing his best Robert Newton "Long John Silver" (from 1950's Treasure Island) impression that you hear several variations of not only on these rides, but in virtually EVERY animated Pirate-type character presented in the 1960s and '70s.

Changes, changes, changes....

Yes, Robot Johnny looks great. Madame Tussaud would be right proud. But is such wax museum realism out of place in a place bourne out of pure fantasy? Art director Marc Davis never really intended that the players in Disney's ultimate adventure ride look like real people, but more like characters out a storybook...some comical, some cartoonishly sinister.
None of 'em really look like movie stars, though.

Now here's a damn man's-man robot pirate --aka "The world's most famous Auctioneer" -- Pictured here with genius creator, and legendary animator turned Imagineer Marc Davis and his wife, Alice. Marc had worked for the Disney company since 1935. He handled the animation of such classic Disney characters as Snow White, Tinkerbell and Cruella De Vil. When he jumped over to work on the park attractions with the Imagineers he helped breathe life into The Country Bear Jamboree, The Haunted Mansion, The Jungle Criuse, The Enchanted Tiki Room, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and a long list others. Once he was tapped by Walt for the task of creating a Pirate ride for the park, Marc threw himself into the job , and started to read everything he could on the subject. Some of Marc's early preliminaries for the attraction reflected a lot of the original spirit with which he came into the project.

Rascals and Scoudrels, Villians and Knaves...

...Devils and Black-Sheep...really bad eggs....Drink up me 'Earties, Yo Ho!

But the more he read, the more he discoved how few reported sea battles there were that actually got recorded by the history books. Real pirates generally didn't go out in a blaze of swashbucklin' glory --many were hung ...and even more met their ends as whole ships succumbed to nasty strains of VD that they picked up in the baudier costal towns of the day. Aaaarr, indeed.

While a shipful of syphillus-crazed, nearly-rabid pirates might have been a little dark for the park, (if not the scariest notion this side of Italian Zombies) Marc decided to primarily focus on the more humorous and lighter side of Pirate life, with some adventure and skeletons thrown in for good measure. (Walt never would've gone for the whole VD angle anyway.)

Still, the pirates passion for powdered and perfumed flesh figured enough into their heritage that it couldn't be ignored in a reality revolving around pirate culture. So some "humorous" takes on the advances of pirates on women were the focus of several scenarios of Scaliwaggery.

Most scandalous and politically incorrect being "The Auction" scene where the women of the town are being sold as pirate brides. The banner itself reads "Take a wench for a bride."( That's funny not scary, right?)

While the idea and depiction of women being sold into Pirate slavery is still cool with Disney, in 1997 it was deemed that some of the pirates over-amorous advances were deemed too sexist (and downright disrespectful) and had to go. These "bicycle-wheel" chase vignettes were amongst the first things to be altered due to changing and current views on what is and is not socially acceptable. I guess I can understand that, but as much as this gag has been parodied over the years (perhaps most recently on The Simpsons) it's still really a shame.

The Pooped Pirate

Here's Marc's original envisionment of the "girl in the barrel" gag.

This character, known as the "Pooped Pirate" --and one can only imagine why-- was one of the more memorable denizens of Disney Pirate town. Sweaty and red-cheeked, he'd swagger and proudly display his ill-gotten booty, a torn slip and high-heeled shoe. As the boat of park guests would float by he would adress them by asking "Now where be that fascinatin' little ol' treasure, aye? 'Eave to mateys! Say, 'ave ya set yer eyes on a bewitchin' maiden in yer travels? ...Oh, she be a lively lassie she were!" referring, of course to his panicked prize in the barrel directly behind him. He continues his ramblings "Oh, I tell ya true, it's sore I be to hoist me colors on the likes of that shy little wench!" As the guest boat drifts by he throws out one final offer to anyone listening "Keep a weather eye open, Mateys! I be willin' to share I be!"
A shade sexist, eh?

Here's some shots of ol' P. P. in his prime.

When the axe of socially-conscious change fell in 1997, over-sexed turned to over-indulged as The Pooped One was re-geared for food rather than carnal pleasure to satisfy his cravings. At least he was still around, but longtime fans and Disney enthusiasts noticed and protested the change immediately --though he wouldn't remain this way for even a decade before he'd be altered again.

Now, the scene looks like this. The former pooped-glutton is now the "Holder of the Golden Key"...and the dog no longer threatens to give away the nude gal in the barrel, now he provides the the same service for Cap'n Johnny Jack. To me this scene kind of apitimizes the main problem I see with the update.

In the clips that I've seen so far the movements and characterizations on the new Johnny Depp animatronics are way down the road from the robotic capabilities of 1960's automitons. The new figures are capable of some really quick movements that have a "motion-capture" kind of feel to them. But it's primarily this factor (and the super-close likeness of Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow that helps to create --in my opinion -- a technological gap within the dynamic of the presentation, It almost looks like "Hey...who's the real guy up there with the robots?"

This scene with the drunken pirates and the barrels of rum would be updated in (for the better really) 1997 as well. While the concept of the the flowing alcohol from the shot whiskey barrels filling the mugs of the already 'faced Pirates was basically deemed undoable in 1967, thirty years later it would not be so. The gag was one of Marc Davis's original concepts.

The original last thing that the guests would see on the ride was this here rascal, (lovingly known as Thurl) waving goodbye to those who made it through okay. Like so many things in 1997, he too was changed...but not removed. he also became part of the new Cantina scene...even retaining Thurl Ravenscroft's original drunken pirate voice track.

For what it's worth, the original ending was always looked at by some of the original creators as being on the klunky side.
The new ending was changed to be more of a morality play depicting new Pirates (actually figures from the also Marc Davis-designed and recently closed World of Motion attraction) falling under the spell of the treasure and succumbing to yet another pirate vice...greed! The intent was to kind of bring the story full circle, back to the "Dead men tell no Tales" warnings. Of course, the treasure and it's curse is what the whole ride's about anyway... and here at the end of the ride you see the cycle repeating itself. As an in-joke, amongst of the things that the greedy dogs are trying to make off with is a large painting featuring the image of actor Peter Ustivnov as Blackbeard from the 1967 Disney feature Blackbeard's Ghost. Sure, why not. It's a moot point now because this scene too has been scuttled in favor of a Jack Sparrow related ending.

Robot Johnny must get ahold of that key somewhere along the the line because the end of the ride finds him in his own room of treasure, surrounded by riches. Note the curved archway and stairstep levels shows just how it replaced the last scene with the theives and the painting.

Well, that's just ...swell.
The Disneyland Pirates of the Caribbean ride was the last original park project that Walt himself oversaw before his death in 1967. A real tragedy is that he never got a chance to see the ride open. Ironically the "auction scene" was the only one that he ever got to see in motion. (Which might explain why it hasn't been altered since the ride opened.)
The Pirates attraction at Disneyland was intended to be the new high standard in ride experience sophistication...A showcase for the talents of the Imagineers. Never again would a theme park ride have such a slow building of mood and intrigue. The waterway twists and curves following a trail of skewered skeletons and it really seems like a long time before you see a "living pirate" on the Disneyland ride in Anaheim. Actually, it is. The California ride clocks in at a whopping fifteen minutes --The Florida ride at Disney World is literally half that at seven and a half. If it was just the Disney World ride getting the treatment (which I assume it will...) I wouldn't care as much. But Anaheim's was the original and now it's been forever changed.
The Disney money machine's gears grind -- black smoke belches from it's stacks and more unbelievable Americana goes on the scrap-heap.

When Marc and Alice Davis were interviewed by Rick West in the late 1990's Marc had these poiniant words: "Walt Disney himself [said] that his films should be re-released every seven years because there would be a new generation that saw them, and they were 17 years old or so; now they would be in their 20's and have children and they would want them to see the same thing that they saw. I think this is terribly important, that these things are lasting, and are something that is very important to the people who've enjoyed them. I don't think they like going down and seeing something that's been changed simply to be changed. To say "Well, we're updating this," I think the thing is like history; you don't make history different than it was, in order to say, make it better. You can't change history; it's there. What's good with these attractions should always be there for everybody to see."
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Alice added.

Well, it wasn't broke but it sure as hell seems all fixed now.
But who am I to gripe, change is after all a constant factor at Disneyland, and they're ingeniously feeding off the current pirate craze that they helped create and perpetuate by hawking crazy-real Johnny Depp robots as a new draw to a ride that's an old favorite. (also providing pining housewives their best chance to see a huge hearthrob movie star "in person")
They'll probably make a billion dollars.
My thanks to Rick West (of Theme Park Adventure
magazine), Tony Baxter, Dead Men Tell No and Jack and Leon Janzen for providing the invaluable information used in the creation of this long-overdue post.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's a shame. One of my favorite things in the first movie, was the subtle vignettes that came straight from the ride, like the jailed pirates trying to lure the dog with the key. Now no one will understand why that's so clever.

Oh well. Maybe they'll change it back in seven years, when the hype's over.


11:53 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why would anyone want to mix life-like with cartoon/illustrated-like represenations...kills the overall feel and continuity of the ride. Thankfully the Eddie Murphy Haunted Mansion movie wasn't as much of a success or we might see him popping up in the ballroom.

11:57 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post!

There are many parallel situations in the past few years, where not only is the point of the historical origin forgotten (the ride/play/movie was good, people recalled it, liked it, etc...) it was then treated as if the basic reasons for that interest by fans and public didnt exist, in order to re-match it to the new, mega-succesful "homage".

But "Pirates" gets out alive at least - take for example, the logic of the "Producers" - a film that was a cult-favorite and well-cast classic, which included within its plot, a musical number. Decades later, it is turned into a succesful broadway show with musical numbers. Alterations naturally occur to fit that format. The logic of success means to convert into another format - so here, turn that MUSICAL into a MOVIE - competing against the original even. It fails of course, and in turn, reflects back on the original musical a bit. Sort of, hubris.

Better, at least, would have been, to make the premise of the NEW movie, about trying to intentionally make a failed movie using the "Producers" musical as the device for getting funding... well you see where I am going.

Creativity means keep the ball rolling in transition between different kinds of mediums, rather than reproduce the one medium inside of another in crystal-clear reproduction and forgetting the script, the "why" people go to the one or the other. There is a difference between a historical theme park Ride and some sequences from a movie-experience narrative, for example.

10:09 AM

Blogger Reverend Doctor said...

AHHHHH, I have found you! ARGH! Now, feel the power of my insanity!


Anyway, I vaguely remember the old Pirates ride, and I'm from Orlando! I think I remember the "naked" lady, but honestly, I went to the Magic Kingdom every year for the past few years, and I don't think I ever went back into the ride, not knowing there were changes made. Of course now, I'm about 90 min away from Atlanta, so unless I win the Mega Millions (I promise to give you and George some moola), I won't go back to Disney for a long while....

It was a pleasure to meet you at D*C (and Traci Lords as well).

8:59 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the excellent post, especially the more obscure Davis art and the superb photo of Paul Frees!
Since it's (almost) International Talk Like A Pirate Day, you might enjoy having your Fortune Red at Sorcerer's, where we pay tribute to the Pirates Arcade Museum, the much-overlooked final feature of Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland!

11:57 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I think it's great Disney updated the attraction. The originality of it stays. Only by putting the Pirates of today in the ride, it's more accessable for the new generations. I hope the Pirates ride in Disneyland resort Paris will also be updated. I go there allmost every year, and I am a huge fan of the ride and the movies witch Johnny Depp. I mean, you have to renew, otherwhise Disneyland gets that old fashion themepark that never changes. That's not good eighter. Greetings from the Netherlands. Dennis

4:29 PM

Blogger Rob G. said...

Am I crazy or did they also yank the "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter" sign? Was just there a couple of weeks ago and could have sworn it was there originally.

Great blog, BTW.

12:24 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pssst, avast there....

The ride and Disney concept was the inspiration for the movie, not the other way around. You don't pay homage to great ideas by making them politically correct (first significant screw up) or by changing them to fit a two hour spin-off. Change is good. Updating the sound system is great. Taking a classic idea, soundtrack, and ride and making it fit a movie everyone will forget in 10 years is just stupid. Poor Walt must be rolling over right now.

10:54 AM


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