“The Dark Crystal” Throwback Thursday Review

With the highly anticipated The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance releasing on August 30th, I want to revisit the cult classic that is still equal parts beautiful and terrifying to this day. A couple of years ago, Fathom Events brought The Dark Crystal to the big screen, so I was able to watch this outstanding motion picture on the big screen for the first time ever. Despite the very macabre nature of many parts of the movie, my parents showed this movie to my sister and I at a young age. From the very first time we watched it, my sister and I became fans. As kids–back when kids played outside, in the woods, and in abandoned buildings using their imaginations to role play–we created characters that were ostensibly taken from the world of the movie, and spent hours imagining we were in Thra. As a kid, I was mesmerized by the spectacular production design and puppetry. I can only speculate the degree to which kid-me appreciated the artistic elements of the now iconic motion picture, but I imagine that it completely captured my imagination, otherwise I would not have rewatched it as many times as I did. As an adult, I am shocked that my parents allowed me to watch it at such a young age because there are moments that terrify first-time adult audiences today. Sometime last year, I introduced this movie to my penpal, and he was blown away by how dark this fantasy movie was. Of course, this movie came out at a time that fantasies were dark (case and point, The Neverending Story). On the surface, this may be a common premise of good triumphing over evil despite adversity, but there is so much more that makes this the timeless classic that it is. Jim Henson was an incredible genius who truly knew how to combine form with function to create a fantastical masterpiece.

What stands out more than the plot itself (which is pretty straight forward), is the fantastical practical effects that give the film incredible depth–levels of dimension that CGI-heavy movies with they had but won’t ever achieve. Why? Simply because you cannot replicate the way real light bounces off real objects and into the camera lens. The atmosphere that the setting and characters combine to make is a level of movie magic that only the genius of Jim Henson could have created. Frank Oz stated that children should not be sheltered from darkness because it is just as much a part of their lives as joy and laughter. There are some truly terrifying and sad moments in this movie. And it looks as if this sentiment is going to be channeled into the new series. The story does not shy away from topics such as torture, death, gender roles, independence, and courage. Whereas the plot itself is simple, the characters are highly complex. Moreover, each of the Skeksis represents one of the seven deadly sins, and each Mystic is the good counterpart. The gelflings represent the “human” or emotional component in the narrative, so they serve as the conduit through which we experience the plot. Aughra is our logical character whom provides the diegetic exposition to understand the gravity of the encroaching Great Conjunction. There is a beautiful poetry in how the characters all complement one another and their respective surroundings.

Although all Jim Henson movies feature muppets (Henson’s patented puppets) and other movies have puppetry, The Dark Crystal stands alone as the only film of his that is entirely puppets! Yes, you could argue that the few longshots are human actors, but that is splitting hairs. For all intents and purposes, only puppets appear in this movie. And these puppets were the most advanced to ever hit the screen, and still the most advanced puppets to have ever been witnessed on the silver screen. Fewer than 20yrs after The Dark Crystal, virtually all puppetry would be replaced with CGI to save money and time. Sacrificing experiential art for technical marvel and efficiency. These advanced puppets inspired the ones that have made appearances in Disney and Universal parks over the years. Some of the puppets had to be operated by multiple people, yet when you watch them on screen, you forget that they are a puppet because they truly exist within the fantastical world. I love how the design of each and every kind of puppet is an extension of the world in which they live. So much dimension in each and every creature. There are lines, shadows, textures, and more that CGI could never replicate. These are three-dimensional creatures that exist within a four-dimensional world that exemplify the absolutely peak of a combination of technical design, costuming, and articulated performance that the camera natively captures without need for post-production to create a significant effect after the fact. Very seldom do we get to witness such an attention to detail in the design of a character (we will get to the set soon). These puppet characters do not feel or look artificial, the manner in which the light reflects off them and they interact with the world around them gives them an outstanding ability to make us forget that there is someone pulling the strings. We emotionally connect with these characters in such a way that can so often only be done with human or animal actors.

The production design of the set is an outstanding, dazzling artistic achievement by standards then and now. You’ll be hard pressed to find another set that is created with such a high degree of tangible detail. No amount or quality of CGI can even hold a candle to the wildlife, plant life, and landscape of Thra. I absolutely love how the homes of each of the groups of characters (Skeksis, Mystics, Podlings, Gelflings, and everyone’s favorite Aughra), are designed to be an extension of the inhabitants themselves. Because there is nothing generic about any of the settings, the degree to which the lands feel real is astonishing. One of the reasons for that is because it IS real! Blue/green screen technology was still in its infancy so there was thankfully no real desire to integrate it into the set for most of the movie. However, the final scene of the movie does feature some green screen work that does not hold up today. Without a screen able to fill in the gaps for most of the movie, the artisans and craftsmen had the daunting task of bringing this world of fantasy in the age of wonder to life. And their tireless efforts pay off in spades. Diversity runs strong all through the story both visually and figuratively. No two landscapes or settings look alike, just as no two characters (even the podlings) look identical. Every line, corner, and texture radiates art. More than simply a backdrop for the scenes of the plot, the settings are essentially characters themselves. The way the characters interact with their surroundings holds the audience in an incredible suspension of disbelief as to the believability of the world that is on screen.

Although it was not a blockbuster in the US, as it was up against E.T. that same year, it was the highest grossing box office hit in France and Japan. Not being an initial box office success has not stopped the film from aging well and remaining an impressive work of art even by today’s audiences. Perhaps it is best known for being a cult classic, but that cult following has remained strong through the years. So much so that we have the Netflix prequel series with an all-star cast debuting in August. It’s refreshing to see that a prequel (or sequel) strives to embody the soul of the original in order to inspire a new generation of fans and future visual storytellers. We fell in love with the original because of the puppetry and production design, the unique characters, and fantastical elements that make it an exemplary motion picture.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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“MA” Horror Movie Review

A delightfully disturbing and thought-provoking Carrie meets Misery horror movie. Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer delivers an outstanding performance; however, the movie is unfortunately hampered by a weak screenplay with flat characters. In short, the reason to watch this movie is for the terrifying performance by Spencer, solid world-building, and commentary on high school bullying and teen sexual assault. Tonally, MA is a throwback to 70s and 80s slasher horror complete with the slow-burn windup, off-beat comedic schticks, and a descent into gnarly violence. Not all the kills cause you to wince as the screen holds your eyes hostage in the pleasurable unpleasure, one of the kills will leave you cheering–no seriously, it will. Built upon the premise of the sins of the parents will be visited upon the children, the screenplay does not hold back when taking us to some very dark places that fester with anger, fear, and resentment. With so much going for it, it’s unfortunate that the movie suffers from on-the-nose dialogue, leaving little room for subtext. Furthermore, most of the characters lack significant dimension that could have propped up this movie. Some interesting relationship dynamics and backstory are touched on, but never followed through in a meaningful way. While Spencer is truly the glue holding this movie together, there are some highlights worth discussing.

A lonely middle-aged woman befriends some teenagers and decides to let them party in the basement of her home. But there are some house rules: One of the kids has to stay sober, don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, and never go upstairs. They must also refer to her as Ma. But as Ma’s hospitality starts to curdle into obsession, what began as a teenage dream turns into a terrorizing nightmare, and Ma’s place goes from the best place in town to the worst place on Earth. (IMDb)

While most of the characters lack any true dimension (except Ma), the ensemble cast is comprised of some highly relatable characters. At the forefront of the cast is our title character of Sue Ann (or Ma). If you are coming to this movie as a single individual over 30, then you will likely identify with her by empathizing with her backstory and understanding what it’s like to feel that life is a parade passing as you wave it by. Furthermore, Sue Ann suffered repeated bullying, rejection, and even teen sexual assault that left a lasting psychological trauma. Or maybe you are the former popular high school Erica who moved away from her jerkwater town to Los Angeles, lived a wealthy life, just to wind up a divorcee and back in your hometown as a cocktail waitress. Perhaps you are the new girl at school Maggie, who grew up in Los Angeles but now is back in dismal Ohio during your junior or senior year of high school because your dad left your mom (Erica) for another woman. You could be the Regina of your group of friends, the dude bro, or the all American boy with a touch of geek. Whatever your high school experience or how it affected your adulthood, there is likely a character with whom you can identify.

Although the film could have commented more on the PTSD associated with high school bullying in a more meaningful way, and derived even more horror from it, it does serve as an exploration of the real, lasting effects on the psyche. A brief character analysis of Sue Ann reveals someone who is trying to capture that which evaded her in high school: the parties, the romance, the care-free friends. Because of the abominable treatment of Sue Ann by many of her classmates in high school, she suffered a trauma that mitigated her ability to socialize properly and psychologically mature. Therefore, as she grew older, she was constantly reminded of that which she could not experience in high school. So, when she saw a moment to reconnect with her youthful self in being needed by the group of teens outside of the gas station to buy alcohol, she seized the opportunity. Of course, the fact that our all American boy Andy is the son of the guy she crushed on in high school, definitely helped her make the decision to help. Unfortunately, her high school crush was responsible for the sexual assault she endured. A sin for which both father and son would pay. It doesn’t take long for the teens to see the cracks in Sue Ann’s fragile veneer. While the teens enjoyed Sue Ann’s party house and the charismatic Ma, things were fine. When they rejected her, things took a grave turn for the worst. And just like that, she was reminded of the torment from their parents in high school and began to plot her revenge on both the teens and their parents. In this respect, she is a little like Freddy Krueger because in A Nightmare on Elm Street we have the concept of the sins of the parents will be visited upon the children.

If you went or are going into Ma with the desire to see a terrifying horror movie from start to finish, then I need to warn you that this is a slow burn horror movie. Not, that slow burn is without its intrigue and suspense, after all, this is where the world and relationship building happens. However, this movie does not reach its horror status until the third act. But once the horror hits, it hits hard–gnarly even. Even the kills/tortures that you saw in the trailer still pack a powerful punch. Most of kills are nightmarishly real. Very little visual effects here; you get the benefit of some highly authentic practical effects. Yes, even the lip sewing scene. Probably one of the most disturbing torture and kills involves animal blood; this moment is nice homage to both Misery and Carrie, but not a copy of either. There is a poetry to the tortures and kills. No one is targeted out of sheer happenstance, but targeted because of whom or what they represent. The sins by which Sue Ann judges the teens or parents are directly connect to or represented in the manner in which they meet their demise. More than the creativity in the actions of Sue Ann, the reasons why she feels the way she does are the most interesting. Even though we should be disgusted at the actions of Sue Ann, we cannot help but empathize with her because of her troubled history and past trauma. She wants what any of us want: to love, have our love returned, and be accepted.

Is it a great horror movie? No. But is is a solidly good one? Yes. If for no other reason, you watch Ma for the outstanding performance by Octavia Spencer! She is absolutely captivating and will leave you with many WTF moments. Interestingly, this is not Spencer’s first time in a horror movie; she was in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II. I hope that we get to see her in more horror movies in the future because she did such a fantastic job with this one. If you’re looking for a fun, popcorn horror movie that–to its credit–does have some thought-provoking content, then you’ll enjoy Ma.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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“How to Train Your Dragon: the Hidden World” review

Outstanding finale for the beloved franchise! Bring your tissues because you’re going to need them. Return to the colorful, immersive world of dragons for the final chapter in the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy. We were first introduced to Hiccup and his cat-like dragon Toothless–probably the most adorable dragon ever–nearly a decade ago, and Hidden World delivers a beautiful story that takes full advantage of Dean DeBlois’ epic fantasy world of highflying adventure and heart. Unlike franchises in the cinema or on television that depict the key characters the same age in perpetuity, HTTYD allows its characters to mature and grow in complexity. This growth enables the audience to identify and empathize with the animal and human characters thus giving the film incredible emotional weight. Not only do the characters demonstrate personal growth over the nine years we’ve been enjoy Berk and all its wonders, they exhibit tangible evidence of interpersonal societal growth as this Viking kingdom learns to love and cherish creatures they once feared. Toothless takes center stage as he too, along with our friends from Berk, must grow up. Both Toothless and Hiccup experience the powerful dynamic of love as it greatly affects one’s actions. While many were wondering if this trilogy could pull off a Toy Story 3, after the immense success of the first two, especially HTTYD2, suffice it to say, DreamWorks Animation delivers a superlative animated motion picture complete with all the feels.

IMDb Summary: What began as an unlikely friendship between an adolescent Viking and a fearsome Night Fury dragon has become an epic adventure spanning their lives. Welcome to the most astonishing chapter of one of the most beloved animated franchises in film history. Now chief and ruler of Berk alongside Astrid, Hiccup has created a gloriously chaotic dragon utopia. When the sudden appearance of female Light Fury coincides with the darkest threat their village has ever faced, Hiccup and Toothless must leave the only home they’ve known and journey to a hidden world thought only to exist in myth. As their true destinies are revealed, dragon and rider will fight together—to the very ends of the Earth—to protect everything they’ve grown to treasure.

As immersive and excellent as the film’s visuals are, the characters are even more complex and deep. In fact, the film depicts one of the best friendships of any film ever. The key characters, and even the supporting cast, demonstrate love, loss, maturity, growth, and more. Although this is the final installment in the franchise, the characters are still treated with finesse and given room to grow within the movie and to complete the arcs for the trilogy. Often, Toothless and Hiccup parallel one another; they possess traits that complement one another. This added complexity to their respective characters gives them so much depth. Making an emotional connection with and evoking empathy from the audience is such an important element of the character development process. Hidden World builds upon the previous stories of finding one’s destiny in a friendship with the most unlikely of creatures (chapter 1), external and internal complexities with the new friendship and changing familial dynamics (chapter 2), and coming of age by learning from the past and letting go of that which hinders freedom (chapter 3 Hidden World).

More than a commentary on independence or freedom, this film chooses to depict complex emotions such as love between friends, family, and romantic love. And these subjects are not just talked about–exposition would be too easy and lazy–there are many moments that are visually driven, thus increasing the level of emotional impact. One of my favorite moments that deals with both the letting go of the past in order to bloom and grow is the courtship dance scene between Toothless and the Light Fury. Love is not without sacrifice. And in the exploration of relationships and independence, we are reminded of the emotional cost associated with these concepts. Paralleling this exploration of relationships between lovers, family, and friends is the journey of rising to the call and becoming a leader of one’s people. It’s the ideal journey for this final installment because it completes the hero’s journey for Hiccup and Toothless. In the first movie, both Hiccup and Toothless are outcasts, nerdy, and childlike. In the secondary film, they go through both physical and emotional growth learning the complexities of life. And the tertiary film Hidden World builds upon the previous two films by us watching this teen and young dragon grow up to realize their respective places in the world to become the leaders of their people (or dragons). We go from kid to king. So simple, but so perfect.

It’s easy to get swept up into this epic fantasy because we spend so much time with these characters. Not only do we spend movie time with the key characters, but we spend some intimate time with them as well. We see these characters at their best and worst. The individual stories of the three films and the overarching story that exemplifies the three-act structure are not afraid to bloody your characters. As real like people and dragons are not perfect, neither are the characters in the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy. We are drawn to their flaws, the majority of which are in the second chapter but we continue this high level of humanity in the third film. Change is a big part of life, and the theme of change is witnessed in the individual lives plus in the Berkian and Dragonian communities. Utopia is not without its negative impacts. One of those for Berk is overcrowding with the side effects of being more of a target to those who are still hunting dragons. Hiccup must decide whether Berk is a place or a state of mind. But he must also consider the safety and future of the dragons. More complexity. There is no one solution that will benefit everyone. So sacrifices must be made. This motif of chance incorporates the overall theme of love and sacrifice.

The visuals are breathtaking! While some animated trilogies suffer the longer the franchise goes on, the quality of the animation in this film is outstanding! In many ways, it out-Pixars Pixar. Like with other films, if this one had a Pixar logo on it instead of DreamWorks, then more people would be singing its praises. With more dragons, there was certainly room to cut corners and for the quality of the visuals to suffer. Not true with this film! The attention to detail is superb! As beautiful as the dragon flight scenes were in the first and second movies, Hidden World delivers an even more epic flight scene in this film. Wish I had seen this movie in IMAX. During the flight sequence into the Hidden World of dragons, I was reminded of Navi River Journey and Flight of Passage in Pandora: the World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Never felt like a ripoff, but certainly feels inspired by the attraction. We encounter three worlds in this film: Berk, the new island, and the hidden world of dragons. Each of these worlds is designed completely differently from the rest. And the commitment to the art of animated world creation reaches incredible heights! Every scene, every moment, every setting is completely immersive.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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2018 in Review Plus My 10 Best and Worst Films

I’ve read everything from 2018 has been the best year for cinema in recent years to the worst. Aside from the valid argument that “best” or “worst” are highly subjective when basing it on a qualitative criteria, there is no doubt that it has certainly been a year with a lot of variety. There have been some great films and complete dumpster fires. If I were to evaluate 2018 cinema, I would say that this year’s selections skew much closer to best than worst in recent years. Personally, I feel that it has been an exciting year! This observation is evident through the plethora of dynamic conversations on #FilmTwitter. While I do not feel that there is any singular standout film in 2018, there are ones that I feel help to make this a banner year, a truly memorable time in cinema for blockbusters, auteur, and indie films. The combination of new releases in the theatre, through streaming services at home, or sometimes both concurrently, provides audiences with an unprecedented ability to access a wide assortment of movies and films to satisfy even the most discerning cinematic palate.

While it is certainly up for debate how 2018 performed compared to past years, there is little debate that the horror (and horror adjacent) genre has become increasingly mainstream. But is that what the horror community wants? As a longtime fan of the American horror film, I gotta be honest with you that I am not a huge fan of how popular this genre has become. For the longest time, to be a fan of the horror genre was something niche. It was seen as this weird or macabre subculture to which outcasts, geeks, and goths, for example, belonged. Without writing an entire research paper on the subject (which, now that I think about it, may be a good idea), the horror community felt like a family or perhaps a neighborhood. Now it’s getting to the point that it feels like a city. Horror has always been popular and bankable, but it hasn’t been until the last couple of years that it has exploded among a wide array of movie lovers. With the growing affinity among general audiences, that sense of family is slowly fading.

Perhaps it’s the idea that our attraction to the repulsive, the “pleasurable unpleasure” as Freud would say, does not feel as special as it once did. If there is a positive side to more and more people looking to be entertained by horror, it is the number of horror films and shows released. Standout movies and shows from 2018 are A Quiet PlaceHereditaryHalloweenThe Haunting of Hill HouseAmerican Horror Story: Apocalypse, and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. All highly successful and extremely well made, a few award-nominated and winning even! For 2019, many of us are eagerly awaiting the remake of Pet SemataryIT: Chapter 2Us, and others. I love how there seems to be new horror movies and films coming out all the time. Gives me new movies to watch! But the tradeoff is a lot of “new fans” who think they know the genre in the same way as us lifers; furthermore, flock to, not only the cinema, but to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios to create 2-3hr waits for the world-class haunted mazes/houses, many of which are based on horror films and shows. HHN28 was the most crowded that I’ve ever seen it. Maybe it will be up to us lifelong fans of the horror genre to stick together to discuss what we’ve loved and have demonstrated an appreciation for a long time.

Horror isn’t the only genre or subject that has received a lot of attention in 2018, we also had some incredibly strong “non straight white male” writers, directors, central characters, and actors. From incredible performances delivered by Toni Collette, Viola Davis, Glenn Close, and Olivia Colman to films such as BlindspottingWidows, Boy Erased, and Can You Ever Forgive Me?, just to name a few, we have certainly seen a much-needed increase in representation from those whose stories had more difficulty making it to the silver screen. There are many other fine examples of this shift in cinema, and I hope that this trend continues into 2019 and beyond. With all the outlets for storytellers now, it’s a great time to have the money and resources to bring hidden stories to life for all the world to see.

Okay, enough with some of my 2018 observations, here is my Top 10 Films of 2018 list followed by my most disappointing films list. If I wrote a formal review on my blog, I added the link to the title. Some films are so bad that I don’t even bother reviewing them on here. Haha.

Top 10

Honorable Mention: Annihilation

10. Halloween

9. Tully

8. Widows

7. Green Book

6. A Simple Favor

5. A Quiet Place

4. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

3. A Star Is Born

2. Hereditary

  1. The Favourite* After a lot of thought as I’ve been reviewing 2018, and when I was selecting my picks for the Oscars, I realized that I actually liked The Favourite a little more then ASIB. So, I’ve updated my blog to reflect that. (01/22/19).

Bottom 10

10. Christopher Robin

9. Happy Time Murders

8. 15:17 to Paris

7. Rampage

6. Skyscraper

5. AXL

4. Death Wish

3. Truth or Dare

2. Slender Man

  1. KIN

Check to see if I’ve reviewed a movie from 2018 that you are interested in by typing the title into the search bar at the top of the page. There are 44 reviewed NEW 2018 films on my blog plus more than 250 other films! For horror fans, checkout my All The Horror blog from October that has 31 brief reviews of horror and Halloween movies. Odds are, you’ll find some for which you are looking!

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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Twitter: RLTerry1

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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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