Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Thrill rides

It has long been common for critics and even normal people to compare summer Hollywood movies to thrill rides and theme park attractions. Movies designed to give viewers some visceral excitement through on-screen action, wild camera movements and simulated pulse-pounding experiences sometimes give the audience that same exhilaration as having been on a roller-coaster or other fun park attraction. Enhancements such as big screens, quality sound and 3-D can help with the illusion of immersing you in the experience.

Of course, nothing is quite as immersive as believable characters we can care about and compelling situations and well conceived visuals that competently tell a story. And there is nothing to say that these things are not compatible with explosions and special effects and post-production CGI magic. But one does sometimes come away with the conclusion that when a budget grows to include such things, more voices become involved in how the money is spent and you wind up with a movie made by committee—which is never as good as a single artist’s creative vision, assuming that artist has a real talent.

My thoughts were recently prompted to turn to thoughts of the symbiotic relationship between movies and theme parks when I made a long-delayed visit to the granddaddy of all theme parks: Disneyland in Anaheim, California. This is really where it all began. The business genius of Walt Disney was that he realized that his stable of popular characters from cartoons and movies could be leveraged into all kinds of merchandise (books, toys, school lunch boxes, television programs, etc.) as well as making a well-designed amusement park a worldwide holiday destination. What made Disneyland irresistible to “kids of all ages” were rides that promised to immerse you into some of your favorite movies: riding teacups from Alice in Wonderland, going on Mr. Toad’s wild car ride from The Wind in the Willows, flying over London with Peter Pan. You could even explore Tom Sawyer’s island or Sleeping Beauty’s castle.

As the years passed, Disneyland’s attractions became more sophisticated. Some rides got attached to movies that were not home-grown Disney products, like Star Tours, which was based on George Lucas’s Star Wars films. (This ride, by the way, was much improved since my last visit to it—complete with 3-D effects and an even better simulation of a thrill ride through a lot of extreme situations.) But the Disney people also apparently realized that the theme rides could be conceived as original entertainment, just as a movie could. A turning point was Pirates of Caribbean, which opened in California in 1967 and was the last Disneyland attraction that Walt Disney himself personally participated in designing. More elaborate than previous rides of its type, it had a clear story arc, colorful characters and memorable settings. It wasn’t just about pirates but about a specific time and place (seeming to transition from the Louisiana bayou to a Caribbean island) and quickly delving into supernatural elements, with skeletal pirates guarding treasure and warning that “dead men tell no tales.” It quickly became one of the park’s most popular attractions.

Three and a half decades later, Disney made a movie based on the ride. Directed by Gore Verbinski, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (despite being the first of a series, the title sounded like a sequel) was released to boffo box office business. A number of people (including me) joked that the Disney people had only belatedly realized that they had created the theme park ride, having forgotten to first make the movie. Three more movies have followed, the latest being this year’s On Stranger Tides. Curse of the Black Pearl was a crowd pleaser that caught the spirit of the theme park ride and incorporated some of the memorable set pieces concocted by the ride’s designers, notably one in which prisoners try to entice a dog that has the keys to their cell in its mouth.

It was inevitable that the cross-pollination between the ride and the movies would go in both directions. When we were at Disneyland Paris four years ago, I noticed that the Pirates of the Caribbean ride seemed little different from how I remembered it from many years before in California. The only nod to the movies that I noticed was a statue of Capt. Jack Sparrow (the over-the-top character played by Johnny Depp) outside. But on this latest return to Anaheim, I found that the ride had become, as my nephew put it, Johnny Depp-centric. The animatronic figures now include Capt. Barbossa (played by Geoffrey Rush in the films) and no fewer than three instances of Jack Sparrow. There is also a projected image of Blackbeard, as played by Ian McShane. Young folks today could certainly be forgiven for being confused as to whether which came first, the movie or the ride, and which was based on which.

Do the Pirates of the Caribbean movies’ theme park origins make each of them somehow less of a film? No, but they do make them a certain kind of movie. The earliest movies were very much about creating illusions and stunning the viewers. Movies like these are clearly in that tradition. The irony is, however, that audiences have become so sophisticated about special effects, post-production and editing that they are less likely to get caught up in the illusion than their parents and grandparents were. This means that the quality of the characters and the story-telling actually become more important than ever. Those can still create a sense of immersion in a manufactured reality that even CGI cannot always accomplish.

In the case of Pirates, let’s be real. Does anybody really hang on every plot turn and worry about Capt. Sparrow’s character development? Can anyone actually sum up the plot of any of the Pirates movies? I think I am safe is saying that we mainly watch these movies for the spectacle and an occasional thrill and to marvel at Johnny Depp’s ability to inhabit a deranged character and effortlessly deliver a funny line.

Though you might be pressed to think of any others, Pirates of the Caribbean is not the only Disney ride to inspire a movie. In 1997, Steve Guttenberg and Kirsten Dunst starred in a Disney TV movie called Tower of Terror, based on the thrill ride that had opened in Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida three years earlier. Last month I had my first go on the version at California Adventure in Anaheim (open in 2004). As usual, the rider is made to feel that he or she is in a movie (or, in this case, an episode of The Twilight Zone) and much of the thrill is enhanced by the story elements leading up to mechanical drops. Much of enjoyment (if that is the right word) is the image of Rod Serling and his immortal voice setting up the story we have wandered into. I am sure I would have gotten more out of it if I had actually heard more than a few of his words, but the women sitting in front of us began screaming at the top of their lungs before the ride even properly began and didn’t stop until they were well into the gift shop.

Other Disney rides have become movies, although not particularly successfully. In 2002, The Country Bears came and went, starring the voice of Haley Joel Osment. In 2003, Eddie Murphy starred in The Haunted Mansion, which failed to match Pirates’s popularity. And they’re not done yet. A little more than a month ago, Disney announced a new movie based on The Matterhorn, with Jason Dean Hall (screenwriter on the Ashton Kutcher/Anne Heche romdramey Spread) attached to the script.

How long before we get The Teacup Movie?

-S.L., 11 August 2011

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