Theme Park or IP Park?

With all the recent, present, and future changes coming to the legacy theme parks of Central Florida and Southern California, are we witnessing the next evolution in theme parks? I’ve been tossing around the idea of exploring this trend, and those same feelings were echoed recently on the No Midnight Podcast (a Disney-centric podcast that unpacks history and discusses current happenings in the parks). After listening to the episode, it’s become clear that this anecdotal observation I’ve made is shared by others. As I love exploring the history of the parks from a scholarly perspective (as evident in my past articles and book), this is a topic that deserves consideration.

In order to truly explore this trend that some of us in the theme park blog and podcast communities have observed, it’s important to take a brief look at the development of the very concept of a theme park. And before you think that Disneyland was the first theme park concept, think again. Contrary to popular belief, Universal Studios Hollywood was the first to pioneer the idea of a theme park. More than 40 years before Disneyland was opened, the founder of Universal Studios (studio) German immigrant Carl Laemmle, opened his 250-acre-movie-making ranch, just north of Los Angeles, to the public for a mere $0.25. More than side income for the trailblazing studio, most well-known for its pioneering of the horror film, the original studio tour began on the outdoor backlot in March 1915. Laemmle desired to immerse guests into the magic behind the screen. The happy marriage, however, was not to last very long. Upon the introduction of cinema sound, Laemmle was forced to close the studio “park” to the not-so-quiet guests in order to facilitate appropriate recording sound for the motion pictures. The Universal Studios tour would remain closed to the general public for over 30 years. But, in 1961, the studio would once again open its gates to a new generation of movie lovers through the still world famous studio tram tour.

Combining inspiration from what Laemmle began 40 years prior, visionary Walt Disney made the decision to create an entire land that would immerse guests into the world (or land) of Disney. More than an amusement park, Walt Disney set out to create a multi-dimensional experience complete with continuous coherent storytelling from the architecture to the attractions and restaurants themselves. Even before the park would open its doors in 1955, Walt Disney produced a television special that sought to energize enthusiasm for the groundbreaking concept that took the stories, settings, and characters from the screen and translated them to exist in the real world. Disneyland was so popular that Walt began to develop an idea that would forever change the theme park business forever. The “Florida Project,” as it was called, would eventually become Walt Disney World. Sadly, Walt passed away before the park would open, but Walt Disney World is the manifestation of Walt’s ultimate dream. Disneyland was first and is the park that Walt built, but Disney World is truly what Walt envisioned when he dreamt his innovative idea inspired by his imagination.

In the mid 20th century, Universal Studios Hollywood, Knott’s Berry Farm, Busch Gardens parks, SeaWorld parks, and later in the 20th century Universal Studios Florida were all opened to eager crowds! Each of these parks had a distinct theme, a specific story into which guests were immersed. With the cases of Busch Gardens and SeaWorld parks, the storytelling was also accompanied by a conservation message. Attractions were built that matched well with the theme of the respective land. It’s important to note that, for the most part, there was significant thought put into an attraction fitting into the design (architecture) of the land in order to never take the park guest out of the overarching theme of the area FIRST and the whether or not a particular intellectual property (IP) works in that land second. Make the attraction fit the theme, not retheme the area to match the attraction. Whereas I am oversimplifying this practice or concept, the point is to get you thinking of how theme parks processed new attractions for the longest time; that is, until Universal Studios Islands of Adventure redefined themed entertainment.

Entire volumes of articles could be written on how Islands of Adventure (IOA) redefined themed entertainment; but for the sake of argument, the impact will be streamlined. Prior to IOA, theme parks, including Disney and Universal, were largely built with theme first and properties second. Now, themed entertainment designers are busy taking major IPs, placing them in the park, and then rethemeing around it. Each land or area is themed to the attraction versus the attraction designed to fit the theme of the park area. But in doing so, does this negate the very concept of a theme park, traditionally speaking? What happens when the movie is no longer relevant?

Unlike the other theme parks, at the time, Universal’s IoA was different in that it took popular IPs with entire universes (or worlds) if you will, and built vast lands in which there are attractions based on the movies/books represented. Prior to this, the closest examples were Disney-MGM Studios and Universal Studios. But even with the two aforementioned examples, they weren’t concerned with lands of the movies, but integrating the movie properties into the backlot look and feel of the park. With Disney-MGM (now Hollywood Studios, until it changes again) and Universal Studios Florida, the theme was a combination of Hollywood and the magic of motion pictures. So individual movie or TV properties were included as part of the them park experience, and guests were prevued to studio audience opportunities or the ability to audition to be on a show (think Nickelodeon Studios). The theme was “the movies” or “Hollywood.” From the architecture, to street names, to real-life locations, both of these parks that incorporated different movies or TV shows into the layout and design. The location was largely Hollywood, but could include New York City, San Francisco, a canyon in Arizona, or Amity Island. The attractions were built into the existing landscape versus selecting a property then changing the environment to match the IP. As these “movie parks” have been moving away from the magic of moviemaking to more immersive experiential environments, the “theme” has been changing rapidly. One could draw the conclusion that the “theme” of these parks is now an anti-theme. An anti-theme in that there are a variety of experiences that do not exist within a themed landscape that connects them together.

The theme of Islands of Adventure was just that, islands of adventure. Each island around the lagoon was a different land inspired by a different IP. Personally, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, and Seuss Landing are my favorite islands! Arguably, Jurassic Park was the centerpiece of the then-innovative concept as it was the biggest fandom represented. Today, that crown rests on the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (since 2010). Not only was IoA the first to pioneer this concept of individual themes within the park, it was the first to create an immersive world in extreme detail. And it was the Wizarding World of Harry Potter that completely changed the theme park game, rewrote the rules, and began the trend away from “theme” parks to IP parks. Instead of a collection of attractions around a shared theme (or collection of themes), now parks are trending toward a park that is a collection of disconnected IPs. While Magic Kingdom has the different themed lands, the overall theme of magic kingdom was largely fantasy and adventure not connected to any specific singular IP. And in each of the lands, there were attractions that fit the theme of the lands, some of which had movie counterparts. But the focus was not on the individual movies as much as it was the idea of escaping to, being transported to a world of high flying adventure or whimsical fantasy.

Ever since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened, Disney and Universal parks (mainly) but also joined by Movie Park Germany and MotionGate Dubai are principally concerned with attaching movie and literary IPs to the park for the guests. Reminiscent of the space race between the US and Russia of the mid 20th century, the race for theme parks is for IPs for the parks. This pattern continues into the film distribution and production company interests for new content–content that will lend itself to successful translation from screen to park. It’s more important than ever for media conglomerates and umbrella companies that have theme park and distribution interests to know what movies or entire franchises make for viable theme park lands and attractions. I cover this very topic in my study and book On the Convergence of Cinema and Theme Parks, which you can buy an Amazon! Just because a movie or entire franchise is popular, does not mean that it is material for a theme park. For more on that topic, checkout the book.

While building entire lands based upon a popularly established IP to create an immersive environment looks and sounds like a great idea to draw the enthusiastic crowds and significantly increase revenue, there is a darker side to this that will not be realized or observed for years down the road. With the more traditional theme park design, attractions can be changed out of the show buildings far more easily than having to retheme and rebuild an entire land. But why would thinking about the ability to change a land be important? Because it is not unreasonable to arrive at the conclusion that a particular IP may not continue to be popular after an IP has had its run. Although not as big as Star Wars or Harry Potter, the former A Bug’s Life is an example of the lengths a park has to go to to remove and rebuild. Razing to the ground and rebuilding is always more costly than building a’fresh. But this does not seem to detour the parks from moving from the traditional theme park concept to an IP park. A collection of IPs that a company either owns or licenses. In the concept of a collection of IPs, is there actually an over all theme? There appears to be more evidence to suggest that theme, in the traditional sense, is lost when focusing on attaching IPs.

With the continuing trend to focus on IP acquisition instead of original themes, it would appear that the traditional theme park may be dying in exchange for IP park. Take Disney’s Hollywood Studios for example. The theme was “Hollywood” or movie-making. What is the theme now? Well, to be honest, the answer that query is vague at best. You’ve Star Wars land on one side of the park, Toy Story in the middle, and a little bit of Hollywood in the front. No consistency in theme. With the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Aerosmith being licensed from CBS (Sony), and the facade of the Chinese Theatre licensed from TCL, the theme is NOT Disney IPs. Same with Universal Studios, the theme is not Universal IP because other than the first two installments, all others are Paramount. Not to mention that Simpsons is Fox. Even the headliner Wizarding World of Harry Potter is Warner Brothers (AT&T). Looking at the Disney and Universal parks, I am left in a state of confusion when attempting to understand the theme of the respective parks. So, since a consistent and coherent theme cannot be identified, I am left with the conclusion that there is no theme–just a collection of original and licensed IPs.

While many may not see the differences between the concepts of a theme and IP park because, on the surface, they both look indifferent from one another, the difference seems to be the story or the diegesis of the park, as a whole, from entry gate to back of the park. So, it’s not a matter of semantics. Going from IP to IP, the experience is disrupted, and reminds you that you have not actually been transported to any of these worlds. Part of what makes the traditional theme park a powerful conduit of creating an experiential continuous story is the ability for the park to consistently suspend your disbelief. To understand the difference a little better, think of it this way: the trending IP park concept is a series of “theme parks” joined together by a unifying gate. Instead of the overarching unifying theme that connects all the areas of the park together in one coherent, continuous story, the IP park is a concourse that takes you to different themed lands. So, the importance is not in the theming of the park as a whole, but in the individual lands within the gate. Think of it as a mall. A mall is a “single gate” structure (whether indoor or outdoor mall) that has many different stores. No two stores are the same (even if carrying similar products). The entryways and hallways/concourses are glorified conduits for transportation to and from the various anchor and supporting stores. That’s not unlike the IP park. Wizarding World of Harry Potter Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, Toy Story, Pandora, and Star Wars lands are examples of your anchor stores with the other areas as supporting stores.

There is a magic that is lost in transitioning from the theme to IP park. Not that the newly emerging IP heavy lands are lacking in a great experiential factor–obviously, that is not the case–but the park as a whole demonstrates a perpetual identity confusion. If you cannot state the theme of a park in a single statement (much like the logline of a movie), then it is does not have a theme, but a collection of IPs with individual themes. Each of the IPs (whether original or licensed) are incredibly fun, immersive, and innovative, but just because you have a collection of IPs does not mean they make a theme park. More like a theme mall. Whatever the case, it appears that there is a trend away from the conventional theme park to the emerging IP park and any studio-based theme park is transitioning away from any connection to Hollywood or the magic of moviemaking. We are at a transitional stage in themed entertainment, and we will see an increasing number of separate IPs housed around a series of concourses to each experience.\

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa and works in creative services in live themed entertainment. He’s also published prolifically on theme parks and produced a peer-reviewed study. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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You’ve Got a Friend in Toy Story Land

Now you can hang with Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang from Andy’s toy chest at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Opening at the end of June, this is the newest expansion at Hollywood Studios located behind the former Pixar Place. This colorful land is sure to make you smile and wax nostalgic. Not only do you get to enjoy the company of Andy’s toys, but you’ll also find many toys, craft supplies, board games, and more from your childhood in and around the area. It was unfortunately raining when my friend and I went, but we still had a great time! The rain certainly didn’t put a damper on our fun. So many wonderful details in the atmospheric design of Toy Story Land. Incidentally, you also get some great views of the progress on Galaxy’s Edge!

When entering Toy Story Land, you are greeted by Woody! You’ll definitely want to stop by for a photo. When you pass through the gateway to this land of toys, you’ll be shrunk down to toy size in order to fully enjoy all that Andy’s toy box has to offer. The element that stands out to me more than anything is the colorful nature of everything. Even on the overcast, dreary day that we were having, the colors brightened up the land. Between the giant footprints and towering privacy fence, it truly feels like you are one of Andy’s toys.

Unlike when the land first opened at the end of June, the wait times in the queues for Alien Swirling Saucers and Slinky Dog Dash are considerably less. Fortunately, the rainy weather contributed to the even lower than typical wait times while I was there. The main attraction (or E Ticket attraction for Disney enthusiasts) is the family roller coaster Slinky Dog Dash. Just to put the experience into perspective, the coaster falls somewhere between Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Magic Kingdom and Cheetah Hunt at Busch Gardens Tampa. My favorite part of the Slinky Dog coaster is the launch! Not nearly as intense as Cheetah Hunt, but quite enjoyable! In terms of duration, it lasts longer than typical family coasters. I was also impressed by the guest cycle time. The cast members were on their A game with loading and unloading park guests. Although we waited in queue for about one hour, the line was consistently moving. You’ll notice there are ceiling fans throughout the queue and plenty to look at. My friend Brittany and I both immensely enjoyed Slinky Dog and felt it was worth the hour we waited.

Woodys Lunch Box is a window (quick service) restaurant in Toy Story Land, and although the menu has changed since opening day, there is still a sufficient variety for a quick meal. Check out the menu here!

Slink Dog Dash isn’t the only new attraction in Toy Story Land. You can experience some swirling fun with the aliens from Pizza Planet at Alien Swirling Saucers. In this glorified “tea cup” attraction, you and your friend board a flying saucer to whirl through the universe. Unlike Alice’s Magic Tea Cups, you have no control over how fast you spin as your flying saucer is connected to the mother ship. Still, it’s a cute, fun ride that was a need for Hollywood Studios.

Make Toy Story Land a must-do on your next Disney trip! Now that the summer is winding down, you’ll probably benefit from shorter wait times in this brand new area. With the rain, I was unable to experience any of the character meet and greets, but I did see green army men walking about. Hopefully next time, I’ll get a chance to say hi to Woody and the gang.

Christmas Arrives at Disney’s Hollywood Studios

The Holiday season is in full swing at Disney’s Hollywood Studios! Sunset Seasons Greetings debuted last week along with the return of Jingle Bell Jingle BAM. Accompanied by snow flurries surrounding you on Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, you will be energized by the joy and cheer of crowds of guests singing some of your favorite Christmas songs–you’ll definitely want to join in. Although the park still feels empty at Christmastime without the late Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, the seasonal offerings at the park do help to fill the void. The present shows still fall short of the immersive experience of the incredible brilliance and beauty of the famous dancing light show. But I digress. My friend Dani and I had a fun time watching the two nighttime Christmas spectaculars….(more)

Sunset Seasons Greetings is Hollywood Studios’ newest seasonal offering for Christmastime that takes place on the Hollywood Tower Hotel (a-k-a The Tower of Terror). Initial impressions of the show leave me with the evaluation that it’s a cute show. Like so many other Disney nighttime shows these days, it relies upon mapped projection technology instead of precisely choreographed dancing Christmas lights. There are four different animation sequences and they repeat until 8pm. Between each roughly minute-long map projection animation transforming the Tower of Terror into a colorful array of images and shapes, there is a transitional animation on the Fantasmic billboard (note: Fantasmic is now sponsored by Pop Secret–not sure that’s the brand you want associated with your show) that highlights a different aspect to the Holiday season. My favorite sequence on the billboard was the one featuring clips from Mickey’s Christmas Carol. Each mapped projection show on the Tower features different music and imagery–each unique. To watch the show from start to finish takes 10-12mins. Since this is a show throughout the evening that rotates, it definitely alleviates any concerns of overcrowding on along Sunset Blvd.

Returning for its second year is Jingle Bell Jingle BAM. For a full review of the show, please see my article from last year. After experiencing the changes that Disney World made to the show, I must say that it feels a lot more Christmassy than it did last year. Last year, I was left wondering where all the Holiday spirit was. Perhaps others felt as strongly as I did that this “Christmas” show lacked Christmas, and Hollywood Studios decided to integrate more of a holiday feel to make it feel like a special seasonal offering. I especially appreciated the singalong of It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year as well as other Christmas standards. There truly is a little something for everyone at this new iteration of the infant show. After the show, my friend Dani and I still remarked that everything we experienced throughout the evening still does not feel as magical as the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, but we still had a great time!

If you are planning to visit Disney World this holiday season, don’t miss these seasonal nighttime spectacular offerings at Hollywood Studios.

Of Mice and Movies

Twitter is a’buzz with the latest from the 2017 D23 Expo. Not to be outdone, Facebook, Instagram, and the theme park blogosphere are all but fully consumed with the big announcements for Walt Disney World out of D23 in Anaheim. BIG changes are coming, and will radically modify the existing attraction offerings at Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios (DHS). While there were many announcements, the biggest ones are arguably the detailed look at the new Star Wars Land, the update on Toy Story Land (opening next summer), Ellen’s Energy Adventure (Epcot) getting replaced by Guardians of the Galaxy. Lastly, the final big announcement that will really hit close to home for many who have been going to DHS for a large portion of his or her life–the announcement of the closure of The Great Movie Ride (GMR) to make way for Mickey and Minnie’s first [dark] ride at Walt Disney World. And it’s that last announcement that speaks volumes regarding the direction that the Walt Disney Company is moving.

Although it’s been fairly common knowledge that the Ellen attraction was going to be replaced with something more contemporary and relevant, the announcement of the closure of GMR came as a shock to many (note: this change WAS hinted at within the last few months). Fortunately, the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre facade is slated to be largely untouched, so it will remain the icon of the park; however, GMR will go by way of The Streets of America. On the plus side, this change paves the way for Mickey and Minnie’s first [dark] ride in the parks period. That’s right. Neither Mickey nor Minnie had a ride based off their respective characters. Strange, right? Since “it all started with a Mouse.” Yes, Mickey has been included in other attractions (i.e. Philharmagic, Fantasmic, etc), but this presents the first time that he will have an actual ride in the parks. Of all the changes coming to Walt Disney World, this represents the most symbolic, and some might argue, the most significant. In order to understand just why this particular change is so important, and to many controversial, we have to look back at a brief history of The Great Movie Ride and by extension DHS itself. If you have read my article entitled A Theme Park in Flux, published back in September 2016, you may be familiar with the following. For all others, let’s hop in the wayback machine!

It’s the mid 1980s. And Disney Imagineers are pictching the idea to add an attraction that explores iconic films to Epcot’s Wonders of Life pavilion. The name of that attraction: The Great Movie Ride. At the same time, Disney is working with MGM/UA to build movie and television production facilities to be the Florida counterparts to the California operations. Concurrent to Disney, Universal Studios and Nickelodeon are doing the same thing just up the road from Disney. Anyway. Led by Michael Eisner at the time, he made the executive decision to–instead of adding a movie-based attraction to Epcot–to build an entire theme park with a filmmaking or film industry theme. Long story short, in 1989 then Disney-MGM Studios opened up with facility tours and two attractions: GMR and the former Studio Backlot Tour inclusive of Streets of America and Residential Street. After the licensing deal with MGM was ended, the park changed its name to Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 2008 and removed all the MGM branding. Shortly thereafter, Residential Street was removed and Lights Motors Action was added. Since that time, all attractions in that area of the park have been closed to make way for Star Wars and Toy Story Lands.

Speeding up to present day. The decision to remove GMR from DHS represents the end of an era. With the closure of that iconic attraction, the park’s original concept, original idea, the very soul of the park is being rewritten. What was once material for waxing nostalgic at the parks–nostalgia being a significant draw to theme parks–will now merely be a distant memory. It’s not that theme parks should avoid evolving to remain relevant–quite the contrary. They need to! But to remove an attraction that represents the original identity of the park, stirs up quite a lot of emotions. Many might argue that this is the equivalent of closing Epcot’s iconic Spaceship Earth because Epcot’s direction has shifted from an educational component to food and thrills. More than riding the movies, DHS (much like Universal Studios) was a park that immersed park guests into filmmaking itself. Granted, the filmmaking process is not as magical as it once was, given that most of the magic exists within a computer and is comprised of 0s and 1s; still, there was a magic to the whole thing that park guests found fascinating, and enjoyed approaching films from a different perspective. If GMR isn’t safe, if the tides of time wash this park-opener attraction off the maps, then is any attraction safe???

Keeping roots in the original concept of a park is truly important, but it seems the powers that be do not feel that any connection to the soul of the park, the history of the park, is important. Not that I don’t think Mickey and Minnie deserve a ride. Of course they do! And there are likely other places where their new attraction could have gone. Take One Man’s Dream for instance. If you’ve been to DHS, you know this as the Walt Disney museum with a focus his early filmmaking days as well as the plans for Disneyland and Walt Disney World. It’s a biographical museum, of sorts. Great attraction. Does it need to be at DHS? No. It’s an example of an attraction that can be moved to another location without a negative impact left by its absence. Disney Springs would be a great location for the museum, and would probably see more guests than it does now. The present One Man’s Dream location could be retrofitted and remodeled for a new attraction. In fact, that area of the park is referred to as the Animation Courtyard. Therefore, it’s best suited for a new attraction where Mickey and Minnie are the stars! For years, I’ve thought that GMR needed to be refurbished. So, I am fully aware that many of the scenes lack sufficient relevance to the kids and teens today–even some young adults. But, because the attraction needed a massive refurbishment does not mean that it should be removed altogether.

It is clear from the announcements at D23 that Disney’s Hollywood Studios will see a complete departure from its founding theme and concept–old Hollywood and the magic of the movies–and move to a sort of diegetic immersion. Instead of learning about the movies, the guests will feel as if they are IN the movies. Instead of celebrating movies, Star Wars and Toy Story will provide guests with a complete escape from the outside world and into the world of these popular franchises. The addition of these properties and lands is exciting! They look beautiful and will offer some fascinating attractions; but, I wish it had not come at the expense of losing the very foundational idea that inspired Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

The best laid plans…

Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (2017) movie review

Prepare yourself for “a tale as old as time” that is ultimately better told through its animated counterpart. Director Bill Condon’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film nominated for Best Picture at the (1992) Academy Awards, is an extravagant display of visual effects and digital imagery necessary to animate a live-action motion picture. Essentially, he took an animated movie, made it live-action, just to make it animated again. Sure, this new version of the “song as old as rhyme” can certainly stand on its own and is demonstrably well-directed, but 2017’s Beauty and the Beast largely comes across as unnecessary. In terms of the storytelling (or diegesis), the film’s effort to nearly shot-for-shot translate the most memorable parts of the film from animation to live-action pays off nicely! It’s when the film tries to be different that it falls short in its delivery. There are sufficient moments that beautifully recreate that which caused you to fall in love with this movie more than two decades ago; although, with this version, you may find yourself exhausted and over-stimulated by the constant waves of computer-animated figures in a live-action world. Oh yeah, you’ll likely miss hearing the legendary Angela Lansbury as the iconic Mrs. Potts. The film does its very best to justify its existence, but begs the question whether or not this was the movie for which you were waiting.

Belle (Emma Watson) is a young lady with a longing for adventure and a great big imagination, but she lives in a rather provincial French town. But, Belle is about to get more adventure than even she, in her wildest imagination could have dreamt. For through a series of strange circumstances, she finds herself trapped inside a dark foreboding castle, surrounded by a very odd collection of characters. It’s in this castle that she finds her father who she feared injured or dead imprisoned by a Beast (Dan Stevens). Against her father’s wishes, she reluctantly exchanges herself for her father’s release. After the Beast sets him free, Belle is to remain a permanent resident of the castle. Fearing the worst, Belle’s father seeks the help of the misogynistic village heartthrob Gaston (Luke Evans) and his band of goofs and thugs to rescue her. During this time, however, Belle begins to feel “something there that wasn’t there before” as she learns more about the Beast of the castle.

Can this film stand on its own? Sure. There is no question in that. Moreover, is it enjoyable and magical? That, it is. But when most of the campaign, leading up to the highly anticipated release, was primarily built upon how similar the live-action film would be to its animated counterpart, therein a problem arises. Because most people going into the movie will have seen the animated version, Broadway show, or even the show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (which, in full disclosure, is a show that I worked when I was a Cast Member at Walt Disney World), you are predisposed to looking for and eagerly awaiting the nostalgic references and memories. And there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I was looking forward to reliving the experience of when I first saw the animated movie. For the most part, if you are like me, then you will be pleased with the live-action translation–truly. However, it’s when the live-action version departs from or adds in material not found or referenced in the animated classic that you may be disappointed or simply ask “why?” You may find yourself wondering why was a live-action remake even necessary?

One of the most memorable elements of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) is the music! Still to this day, millions of people love hearing the classic music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Both the Beauty and the Beast and Be Our Guest can be heard as part of other shows at Walt Disney World and of course are included in the stage show at Hollywood Studios. Fortunately, the most iconic songs from the animated version are largely untouched; however, with a couple of the songs, there are breaks for diegetic dancing, fighting, or other material that essentially interrupts the organic flow of the music from the buildup to the climax and denouement. Again, the question “why” will likely pop into your head. We are introduced to a few new songs, and in and of themselves, are beautiful! Every note and lyric has that Disney magic that many of us have come to expect and appreciate. Unfortunately, the songs just don’t fit in with the original numbers in terms of pacing, lyrics, and score. Furthermore, here’s something quite interesting and odd: the song [To Be] Human Again was written for but deleted when it originally hit theatres in 1991. It was, however, added back in for the Broadway show and in the 2010 (and Diamond Edition) re-release of the movie. Although it was seen as important enough to include in the Broadway show and add back into the animated version, it is conspicuously missing from the live-action remake.

With the exception of Emma Thompson replacing the legendary Angela Lansbury, the cast was well-selected and demonstrated excellent chemistry between one another. Although Emma Watson is not a singer by trade, she was able to capture a Belle-like essence in her delivery of the various songs throughout the film. There was something uniquely organic in her voice that is seldom captured by other Disney “princesses” (note: Belle is not a princess). I greatly appreciate the dynamic range of characters that Watson has demonstrated that she can play over the years. Dan Stevens wows audiences with his vocal prowess especially in his solo number as we transition from the second to third acts. I appreciate how he stuck a fantastic balance between his human and beast sides respectively. Luke Evans was a perfect choice for Gaston, and his vocal talent matches his muscles–big, bold, and flawless. The rest of the cast, which includes some A-list talent itself, was ideally suited for the enchanted objects in the castle and the village.

Okay, now for the white elephant in the room: Josh Gad’s Lefou. Unless you have been completely disconnected from social media and the news, you’ve undoubtedly heard or read about the first ever Disney “gay moment” in this film. Suffice it to say, the whole thing has been blown way out of proportion. In fact, more attention is likely being paid to Lefou now than had the story never grown to the size of Gaston’s ego. For the most part, the subtext and subtitles of Lefou’s are largely just that–subtle–unless you are looking for them. But, in doing that, you may miss some of the more important and impressive parts of the movie. Moreover, there is nothing in Lefou’s actions that come across as offensive or obnoxious. Before audiences begin accusing Disney of pushing their ideals on those eager to attend this film, it is likely that the entertainment and media giant is simply delivering what audiences already expect or want. As a film and media professor, I can tell you that by in large, media simply delivers what audiences and investors are telling them to produce–not the other way around. Looking back at the animated film, it is pretty obvious that Lefou has a thing for Gaston anyway. Although most of the hints at his sexual orientation are more-or-less winks or nods at the audience (winks or nods that you have to be looking for), there is a moment that is a trifle more obvious at the end of the film. Diegetically, there is nothing bizarre about Lefou’s behavior and it suits his character well.

Prepare to be whisked away to an enchanted castle in a remote part of France. So remote is this province in France, that most everyone speaks with a British accent. Bill Condon’s film will take you back to when you first saw this magical tale of falling in love with someone based upon what’s on the inside and not allowing a beastly outward appearance to detract from the gentle soul. Relive the music that you may still listen to in the car or eagerly look forward to when visiting the Disney Parks and Resorts. Ultimately, this film may not capture the magic of the original for you, but there is a lot to enjoy! Looking for a great date movie this weekend, then this is definitely it! Hopefully a side effect of this film may remind producers and audiences that some stories are better suited for an animated motion picture.

Written by R.L. Terry

Edited by J.M. Wead