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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Star Wars and Nintendo: Battle of the Parks

The big question is which will be the bigger draw??? Although it first debuts in Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Olympics, Universal Studios Japan’s Super Nintendo World is one of the most highly anticipated theme park expansions, rivaled only by Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge (Star Wars Land) at Disney parks in the US debuting next year! Two enormous intellectual properties (IPs) that will undoubtedly drive up guest attendance by exponential amounts. But which will prove to be the more popular expansion? Arguably, both lands will significantly impact the attendance of, character meet-and-greets in, and merchandise of the parks. The competition is heating up between Universal and Disney parks and resorts–reminds me of the US and Russian space race of the mid-1900s. While there is no doubt that both lands will be major successes, therein lies a question of which one will prove to be more popular. Not that it truly matters in the grand scheme of things, but it’s one of those things that is interesting to talk about and synthesize some research.

After the opening of both Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWoHP) lands at Universal Studios Florida (and subsequently the Hollywood expansion), it was no surprise that Disney World was running to catch up, hence the opening of Pandora: the World of Avatar. As amazingly beautiful and detailed as Pandora is, it has not managed to draw the continued crowds and fandom that the WWoHP has been doing since 2010. According to the website Touring Plans, the increase from 2015 to 2017 attendance at Animal Kingdom rose marginally on the average whereas the Miami Herald reports that the increase at Universal Orlando during this same time period was more significant, and the forthcoming TEA Connect and AECOM reports are predicted to show greater growth at Universal than Disney World. Suffice it to say, the fanbase for Harry Potter far exceeds that of Avatar; however, the great battle for the crowds is currently between Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge combined with Toy Story Land and Super Nintendo World with further Harry Potter/Fantastic Beasts developments in the worksTo understand which is likely to out-perform the other, one has to delve into the individual fanbases and economic impact of both properties primarily in question–Star Wars and Nintendo.

Unfortunately, there is little to no empirical way to quantify the number of fans either property has because of all the variables. Furthermore, movie ticket DVD/BluRay/VOD sales cannot be weighed against video game console and interactive media (video games) sales to determine fanbase size because it would not be an equitable means of measurement. Understanding the fanbase is crucial to predicting which property will be the bigger draw, which will have the biggest economic impact on its respective park. At the end of the day, both expansions are winners. Both will prove to provide vast positive affects upon the parks. Still, the friendly competition gives rise to the question which will be the bigger success. While the number of fans cannot be realistically quantified, the amount of revenue generated by Star Wars and Nintendo CAN be quantified, and that is precisely what Statista does. According to Statista (and the more than 18K sources from which the company compiles the information), Star Wars has generated $7.5B in revenue compared to Nintendo‘s $75B. What??? Yes, that’s right. Nintendo exceeds Star Wars in revenue 10x. While Nintendo may far exceed Star Wars in revenue generation, it’s important to note that Star Wars is the leading movie franchise in terms of merchandise sales. Yes, more than Harry Potter (and I’m house Ravenclaw). And merchandise sales is a HUGE component of theme park operations and sales.

Since park guests base their visit on more than just a single land, the presence of Toy Story Land at Disney World and Wizarding World of Harry Potter should also be taken into account when determining whether Disney World or Universal Orlando will see the bigger boost to attendance and increase in revenue. Arguably, Harry Potter (inclusive of Fantastic Beasts) is the bigger franchise family based on book sales, ticket sales, current theme park attractions, etc. Therefore, Star Wars land has to be big enough to not only compete against Nintendo World but also Harry Potter. One of the biggest advantages that Star Wars has over Nintendo and Harry Potter is merchandise sales and collections. Star Wars has exponentially more memorabilia and collectors than Nintendo, mostly because of the success of the films and the fact that Star Wars predates Nintendo by several years. But I imagine that Universal will continue to rely upon WWoHP for the bulk of the merchandise sales at the park since it can compete with Star Wars Land on that playing field. Analyzing the fandom of Nintendo is a little more difficult than that of Star Wars because Star Wars is the big umbrella under which all the movies, video games, and merchandise fall. Fans identify themselves as a Star Wars fan, whereas the fans of Nintendo’s product line are more prone to identify with a particular game franchise (Mario, Pokemon, Zelda, etc) more so than identifying with Nintendo proper. All evidence points to both brands being strong, viable candidates that will provide a close competition.

Both Star Wars and Nintendo are worldwide phenomena–no question. Combine Star Wars with Toy Story and conversely Nintendo with Harry Potter, and you have two powerhouse destinations for theme park fans. With the recent expansions at Universal Studios Florida and Hollywood, Disney World/Disneyland needs to ramp up their game–go into hyperspeed. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge pulls into space dock in 2019 just in time for episode IX. We are still a few years away from a domestic Super Nintendo World, and do not know much about it; however, we do have an idea of what to expect at the Universal Studios Tokyo and can by extension apply that knowledge to Universal Orlando. From what we know so far, Star Wars land will be a completely immersive environment that will essentially transport park guests to a “galaxy far far away.” If the WWoHP is the best example of the successful translation from book to screen to theme park for a world of fantasy, then Star Wars land will be on par with the best.

An interesting element to think about is the future of both Star Wars and Nintendo. It’s old news at this point that the most recent Star Wars movie The Last Jedi was not popular with longtime fans–new fans, yes–longtime fans, no. Nintendo is successfully holding onto both the old and new fans because the video games and consoles continue to appeal to those who had an NES as a kid or just bought last year’s Switch. Even legacy properties are holding onto what made them popular, but incorporating trends in interactive media (the term now often used to define that which was formerly video games). Mario Builder is an example of the aforementioned concept. If Star Wars continues to lose its longtime fans, abandons them for the new fans, then the new land may not fair as well as Nintendo World. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a new generation Harry Potter movie that largely appealed to BOTH the old and newer fans. Therefore, it could be said that Universal Orlando’s most popular themed lands may have a longer life than Star Wars if the movies keep dropping the older fans. Just something to think about.

The Battle of the Parks is hot, and will just keep getting hotter! Fortunately, healthy competition breeds innovation, so whether or not Universal or Disney has the better new land expansions, the real winner in this battle is the consumer! Both parks will greatly benefit from the expansions and only time will be able to tell which one wins this race to be the best.

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…

“Rogue One: a Star Wars Story” movie review

rogueoneJust when all hope was lost, the force has awakened this time. After the disappointingly stale installment last year, I did not have high hopes for Rogue One. To my surprise, the first standalone Star Wars franchise film exceeded expectations. Although the public is accustomed to Star Wars films coming in threes, Lucasfilm and Walt Disney Studios took a risk in creating an original single story to successfully setup A New Hope. Unlike when the force tried to awaken last year, THIS feels like a new Star Wars film. With twenty-some-odd years to fill between Revenge of the Sith and the original movie, how was one film going to do it? Focus on what was ultimately important. Not that the development of the Empire would be uninteresting, but the white elephant in the room was “how did the rebels get the plans that setup the events at the beginning of A New Hope“? And that is precisely what director Gareth Edwards did, and it paid off! Rogue One is as exciting as the original film; and furthermore, is built upon a solid plot that is mostly new with a little nostalgia and Easter Eggs (visual references to A New Hope) in the form of locations, props, shots/frames, and familiar featured characters and a surprising cameo. One of the elements that plagued Episode VII was the simple fact that it was little more than a remix and mashup of everything that had been done before, including main plot points, subplots, and predictable behavior. Rogue One feels fresh and new. Yes, there are obviously appearances and references to characters and settings from A New Hope, but that is to be expected since this film ends where the original film begins. Thematically darker than the original film but not as dark as Empire Strikes Back, this installment strikes a balance in the force that makes it interesting to watch. We all know that the rebels get the plans in the end, but this film makes the adventure worth watching as it unfolds.

With the old republic in ruins and the senate all but disbanded, the Galactic Empire has  its eyes set on a feat of engineering never seen before. But they need to attach the right scientific talent in order to create that which would become known as the Death Star. Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is a brilliant scientist and former Imperial officer, devoted husband, and loving father. Director Krennic, head of the secret Death Star project, arrives at Erso’s home to forcibly recruit him to head up the science and engineering divisions. When recruitment does not go as planned, Erso is separated from his family and taken away. Escaping to the caves, his daughter evades capture. Many years later, Jyn (Felicity Jones) finds herself a criminal and angry that her father never came back for her. When an Imperial pilot allegedly defects and claims to have a message from Galen for the Rebel Alliance, Jyn is recruited by the rebels to lead them to a former rebel turned rogue and ultimately to her father. With Captain Cassian Adnor (Diego Luna) at the helm and lead of the small band of rebels accompanying Jyn to her father, they uncover a secret that thousands will die for in order to attempt to make things right in the galaxy. All the while, they have no idea that this clandestine mission will spark events that they could have never imagined.

Already, this film seems to have sparked arguments among fans of the franchise and those who enjoy them but may not be fanboys. Even this morning, I noticed many comments on social media that commented on the film positively or negatively. Interestingly, at first glance, it seems as those who liked Episode VII: The Force Awakens did not like Rogue One, and those–like me and the friends I went with last night–who thought The Force Awakens was garbage but found Rogue One to be exciting, dynamic, and refreshing. Of course, there are plenty of people who like both films released under the Disney banner, either because the Big D can’t possibly do anything wrong or because they are true fans for better or worse of the nearly forty-year-old franchise and staple in the future fantasy genre (notice I did not say science-fiction–no real science here). At this point, I am unsure why those who liked last year’s film may not have liked this weekend’s installment; however, it appears to be clear from multiple comments and reviews that the reason why those who did not like Episode VII enjoyed Rogue One is the newness of a film that embodies the spirit of the original but provides audiences with a new adventure that connects well without redundancy. One of the reasons for the success of the original film–aside from a great cast–is the focus on the drama between characters and camps. There is the drama between Rebels and the Empire but also drama within the camps themselves. Rogue One borrows from A New Hope in that the focus is more on the drama than resting its laurels on the technical elements. Not that this film lacks in the technical category. Rogue One comes complete with great direction, color grading, cinematography, and impressive editing (especially with some rather surprising CGI that will definitely cause you to do a double take utter delight).

For all that this installment did well, the beginning of the film following the prologue was dreadfully ill-conceived and mostly unnecessary. Unlike all the other Star Wars films, this one did not open with the trademark scrolling written prologue offering exposition to setup the movie. Instead, after the “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away” the film cuts to the opening scene of Krennic recruiting Galen. Following the prologue and rather PowerPoint-looking Rogue One title card, is a rapid, incoherent, and confusing sequence of montages. Honestly, I am still unsure why that whole sequence was necessary. Between the PowerPointy title card and this sequence of montages, I did not have hope for the film at all. Obviously, I ended up enjoying it immensely, but I look back and feel strongly that it could have been left out. The settings/planets that were depicted did not play into the plot at any level of significance. Felt like filler. Thankfully, the scenes following the prologue are but a small portion of the film and the film really begins to take off after Captain Cassian and his team rescue Jyn from a prison transport vehicle. After Jyn’s rescue covert operation, the rest of the film is nicely paced and developed. Other than knowing the ending, the majority of the film was unpredictable. Unpredictable in that you know the direction it’s going and ultimately what’s going to happen but you don’t know HOW it all happens and works together to setup A New Hope.

Just the right amount of nostalgia and Easter Eggs. For those who are fans of or simply familiar with the movies, there are cameos, references, and shots taken from the chronologically preceding films (mostly A New Hope). Just enough nods to and direct connections to provide the audience with a film that IS as much a part of the Star Wars saga as the official Star Wars cannon. It’s no surprise that the Death Star is a big part of Rogue One, Senator Mon Mothma is seen leading the rebels, Darth Vader (still voiced by James Earl Jones) makes several brief appearances, and a couple other nostalgic cameos; but there are some characters who are included in the diegesis of this film who will delight old and new fans alike–one in particular that will incite an eruption of cheers! Beyond the human characters, there are other appearances by iconic ships and war machines that aid in cementing this story in with the rest of the franchise. While the film contains some lighthearted, witty dialog between the core group of principle and supporting characters, the film also contains some dark moments. Personally, I think the film should have been a little darker since it sets up the installment all about hope reborn; but, the atrocities of war are definitely not hidden from the audience and events transpire that are atypical of future fantasy films between heroes and villains. In a manner of speaking, and as I mentioned in my opening paragraph, the film’s diegesis strikes a balance in the force in terms of the light and dark content.

Rogue One: a Star Wars Story is an exciting narrative that successfully sets up the film that started it all. If you’re a fan of the original trilogy but did not enjoy Episode VII, you will most likely enjoy this installment. If you are a fan of the original trilogy and liked Episode VII, then there is moderate chance that you may not like this story. It will be interesting to see how this film plays out amongst mild, moderate, and hard core Star Wars fans from both the Disney and Fox camps. I had my doubts of Disney taking the reigns of the franchise after last year; but this film gives me a new hope that Disney may be able to successfully navigate the rest of the franchise.

“Fantastic Beasts: and Where to Find Them” movie review

fantasticbeasts_1Spellbinding! Return to J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world in this fantastic film filled with phenomenal cinematic storytelling and mesmerizing magic. Warner Bros.’ Fantastic Beasts boasts incredible talent on and off screen that is sure to strike both a nostalgic cord with audiences as well as renew a sense of wonder in this new epic tale preceding the events of Harry Potter by more than six decades. From the flawless editing to the character dynamics, this film is definitely one to look for in the technical categories during awards season. Fantastic Beasts is also the first time that fans of Rowling’s wizarding world will witness a film based on an original screenplay and not a work of literature. After watching this movie that essentially extends a wildly popular and successful film franchise, it is clear that ‘the magic awakens’ in a manner that is destined to thrill the dedicated fanbase and ignite the passion of new fans. Whereas the last time a franchise was ‘awakened,’ it felt like a mashup of that which had been heard and seen before, Fantastic Beasts provides audiences with completely new characters in a new city facing all new challenges in a world that echoes the past but is clearly a new fantastical frontier.

Many decades before Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort would cross wands, across the pond a whole new world of witches, wizards, and fantastic beasts is beckoning for adventure. While on a rather academic expedition to locate, identify, and protect magical creatures, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York City to transport and collect the final creatures he needs to complete his zoologic study and publish his research. Unfortunately, this expedition is all but academic. After bumping into no-mag (no-maj/no magic) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) at the bank, Scamander mistakenly swaps briefcases with Jacob and unwittingly releases the magical creatures to roam about the big apple. With bizarrely unexplained events in the no-mag world causing people to pry into the magical world with risk of fully exposing it, Newt’s creatures become the target of the American magical congress. After bumping into an unlikely nemesis turned ally Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) and her adorable sister Queenie (Fine Frenzy), teaming up with Jacob, Newt and his friends must capture all the magical creatures and solve the mystery of what is actually reeking havoc in both the magical and no-mag worlds.

Before analyzing the film’s content, I think it’s best to step back and look at the larger picture here. This is the first time that one of Rowling’s wizarding movies is not based on one of her novels, plays, etc. Furthermore, this also makes the fourth time, for all intents and purposes, in recent years that a popular film franchise with a highly dedicated fanbase is being extended (on the front and/or backside). The other three being: Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and to a lesser extent Star Trek; yes, there are other popular franchises that are being added to, but they are mostly perpetually continual ones like MarvelDC, or the Scary Movies, etc. Although Fantastic Beasts was highly anticipated upon the initial teaser trailers and social media traffic, the elephant in the room was whether or not it would go by way of The Phantom Menace and Jurassic Park III or The Force Awakens and Jurassic World. Thankfully, this return to the wizarding world appears to be going by way of the latter! Still too early to tell if it will truly reignite a fandom in the way the extensions did for the Star Wars and Jurassic Park franchises respectively, but the storytelling is solid and refreshing. Extending a wildly popular but essentially complete franchise is a dangerous road to go down, but Fantastic Beasts is successful in its endeavor to return audiences and fans to a world of magic and adventure.

The first cinematic element you will notice in the movie is the editing, inclusive of special effects. The prologue sequence was an incredibly brilliant way to reintroduce the audience to the wizarding world. I thoroughly enjoyed the innovative approach to integrating the magical newspapers into the opening sequence following the prologue. Although I am not a fan of 3D movies–ordinarily–I imagine that this sequence would provide quite the high degree of spectacle if watching the 3D version (which I did not do). It would not be surprising if this film gives Rogue One a run for its money in the visual/sound effects, editing, and score categories during award season. One element I was specifically looking for was the use of practical effects, props, and animatronics since it’s a film about magical creatures. I watched an advanced screening of Allied immediately before watching Fantastic Beasts; so, be honest, I need to watch it again to locate and identify uses of practical effects or animatronics. But I believe that, to a small extent, some of the scenes including interactions between the human characters and creatures used animatronics. When animatronics and CGI are used in a film–especially in the fantasy/adventure or sci-fi genres–the result is authenticity and a realness that cannot be achieved otherwise.

Eddie Redmayne delivers an outstanding performance as Newt Scamander. Absolutely flawless. From the lack of eye contact to the facial twitches to the over-all manner in which he carried himself, Redmayne does an exceptional job of bringing this character to life. Not having any books to base his characteristics off of, it was important to provide audiences with a protagonist who was both entertaining to watch and find a place in the hearts of fans in two hours. Both were definitely accomplished. Joined by an amazing cast of chief and secondary supporting players, the brilliant direction of David Yates is seen in all the character dynamics throughout the movie. I greatly appreciate the lack of developed physical romance or attraction between Newt and Porpentina and instead the mild romantic subplot involve the sexy Queenie and lovable Jacob. The villains are nicely developed as well. Of course, the best part is not quite knowing who the villains are. Going into that in more detail will give away too much; however, there are many options for villains, anti-heroes, and allies so sometimes you will not be certain who’s an ally, villain, or anti-hero or someone who was thought to be a villain turn out to be a possible ally. Although there are definitely some predictable elements in the movie, there is sufficient enough unpredictability that it will keep you guessing and engrossed in the storytelling.

Prepare to be whisked away to J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world! I cannot wait to see how Universal Orlando/Hollywood will integrate this new series into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter into their parks and resorts. The famous Harry Potter Studio Tour in England may have some new additions as well. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a delight for the whole family and is sure to generate new fans while appealing to and satisfying legacy ones.