I had originally planned on talking about The Living Seas a little more today, but I think that it makes a more sense to delay that one post more so that I can have a bit of a setup for what’s coming next. Then I can focus mostly on the idea itself in the next post.
Let’s talk for a moment about the concept of “Toonification”. I’m not sure if this is the universally accepted word for the concept which I’m speaking about here, or if it varies in different circles of overly obsessed Disney Parks™ fans. I think though that the concept itself is universal, even if opinions on it are not universally agreed upon. Let me try and give it a bit of an Oxford Dictionary style definition:
Scratch that. I can’t start out two consecutive manifesto posts with a definition gimmick! No one would take me seriously, and a person who spends this much time thinking about a single theme park really should be taken seriously, right? Someone tell me I’m right?!?
What do I mean when I speak of the toonification of Epcot? Simply put, it’s a term that some use to describe the insertion of characters (intellectual property to be more haughty sounding) into the theme park. Examples of this would be The Seas with Nemo and Friends (which we’ve just talked about and will talk more about), or the princess dining in Akershus, or the character meet and greets around World Showcase, and most recently, the Frozen takeover of Norway.
If we take a moment to examine the argument against this, I think we can pinpoint my disagreement with the outright hatred against toonification. The argument most heard is that EPCOT Center was a park designed not to need characters. It was more than this. The pavilions themselves spoke louder than Donald Duck could, and the message was too important to need to be told through characters.
These are arguments that I agree with for the most part. Epcot WAS different. It WAS important. Where I differ is that I think that the message can be told with or without characters and still hold the same weight. A poignant story or message can very much be told through characters, it’s in fact a major reason that characters are as popular as they are!
The involvement of Pixar characters in Epcot (and the parks as a whole) has been something that was quite railed against for a time, with the Nemo overlay of The Seas and many rumors of Pixar characters being involved in a redo of the Imagination pavilion. There was a good stretch of time, some would say it’s still happening, when Pixar characters were continuously popping up around the parks. Midway Mania, Nemo (both attraction and musical), Monsters Inc Laugh Floor, the parade at Hollywood Studios, A Bugs Life at Animal Kingdom. It seemed Disney was using Pixar characters for everything.
But examine why this was happening. People had formed strong emotional connections to these characters. There is an entire generation of young adults that have grown up with the Toy Story gang. Wall-E, Nemo, Toy Story, Up, Inside Out. These are some of the best films put out by any animation studio, ever. The characters resonate deeply within us. There is an emotional connection far deeper there than with some brand new concept invented strictly for a theme park. The reason that Pirates of the Caribbean or Haunted Mansion holds such a lofty place today is that these attractions for most part have formed that deep connection over time, and the characters in them hold the same emotional connection as some of the characters in the Disney canon.
So my complaint about Nemo being in The Seas is not because I feel that a character should not be in Epcot for any reason. It’s strictly in the execution. I do not think it impossible or even improbable that a character based attraction can give a solid message about an important topic and do so in a way that holds true to the mission of Epcot. I, in fact, think that it can be a great idea to do so. Using a character in which someone already has an emotional connection with to help send a message is a way to break down, even if only slightly, any sort of wall the person may have.
Now, this message should stay true to the character. We shouldn’t have Winnie the Pooh trying to sell the idea of good nutrition to children. Mr. Incredible isn’t going to give a good message about green energy. The core of the character and the message being sent needs to be aligned, but when they do, the message I believe can be delivered more strongly than without.
What I will say is that right now, especially in Epcot, this is so far away from the case of what has happened that it is laughable.
As we’ve discussed, The Seas with Nemo and Friends is a terrible representation of characters being used. It proves the point that when a character is thrown in with no thought of it’s overall message, that it is detrimental to the attraction. The Living Seas was about the oceanic exploration. The seabase, the science, and the wonder of being a part of it all tied together tightly and were consistent with the message of the pavilion. Currently, the story told on the Nemo attraction has nothing at all to do with the pavilion it is attached to. They are related only because they both involve fish. That is not a strong enough tie.
The story itself, Marlin thinking Nemo is lost and searching for him, visiting all the same story beats as the film without the actual drama of Nemo being taken away, is terrible, and it has nothing to do with the large aquarium at the end of the ride. Not a single thing. I’m sure someone can correct me and tell me that they still say we are at a seabase or something in that pavilion, but I can say that if so, it’s glossed over so much that I’ve never once noticed it.
In the case of characters in Epcot, it’s all about execution. Make a half-assed attraction with no sense of purpose, you’ll have a half-assed attraction that nobody has any attachment to. I’ve never spoken to someone who LOVES The Seas with Nemo. Reviews tend to range between “it’s cute” to “meh” to “I hate it with the fire of 1000 burning suns” (that one is mine!).
In my next post, I hope to demonstrate a little of this.
Keep in mind, I am not saying that the coming idea is the only solution to correcting what has been done at The Seas. It is a solution that hopefully demonstrates the concept that a character can still be involved and the pavilion can still teach and entertain.
Also, I think that it would be a more realistic change that The Disney Company could do today to tie in the thought that people today want to see characters, but still have the interaction be meaningful and important.
Up next. The Seas with Nemo and Friends gets an update, and your first opportunity to laugh at my lack of artistic ability.