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Mickey's PhilharMagic: An In-Depth Report
by Dave Marx, Co-Author of the PassPorter Walt Disney World Resort guidebook

Amid all the hoopla of October's grand media and travel industry event at Walt Disney World, the opening of Mickey's PhilharMagic was nearly a footnote to the festivities (at least, from our vantage point). Lost somewhere between the technological gee-whiz of Mission: Space and the explosive wonder of the Wishes nighttime fireworks spectacular, our introduction to Mickey's PhilharMagic was a good bit more sedate. Only a handful of select, "A list" media were present for the 3-D attraction's star-studded, red carpet premiere/photo op. We, on the other hand, were invited to a later, after-dinner viewing during the big Magic Kingdom press party on October 8. But we did land a 15-minute, personal interview with George Scribner, Animation Director of Mickey's Philharmagic the following day. Here is our in-depth review, sprinkled with interview quotes from George Scribner. (Warning: This article contains spoilers on the show!)

Simply put, Mickey's PhilharMagic is an utter delight. And judging by the reactions of those around us (including several Disney executives, and audiences full of regular guests at subsequent viewings), we're not the only ones to feel that way. Of course, audience reaction has always been part of 3-D attractions. Startle a person, and he/she will certainly respond. This time, though, the reaction didn't come as screams, gasps, or bawling infants. What we heard was laughter, wonder, and delight. Not bad, eh?

"The Fantasyland Concert Hall" is the former home of "Legend of the Lion King" and from the outside, little besides the signs seems to have changed. The façade is still the familiar Fantasyland "stonework," and the queues seem unchanged, except for the addition of FASTPASS machines and a FASTPASS Return queue. To the right of the entrance is a large new merchandise shop, chock-full of PhilharMagical stuff. Lines in this outdoor, only partially-covered queue area can still be very long, and barely move most of the time, but about every 12 minutes the line moves dramatically, when a new group enters the theater.

Once you've passed the turnstiles at the front door you step into the familiar outer lobby. The décor here hasn't changed much, but the former, open-plan lobby where folks used to simply jostle and press towards the pre-show entrance has been turned into a zig-zaggy crowd control queue. While it's quite tedious to make your way through the queue, ultimately I think it beats the former "trampling herd" environment. While you're weaving your way through the queue, look at the framed posters that line the walls, commemorating great moments in the concert hall's history. As always, the wit of Disney's Imgineers shines in these little gems. From there, guests pass into a new, inner lobby that replaces the former pre-show area. Decorated in rich blues and gold with dramatic mood lighting, this inner lobby sets the perfect mood for the "classical" concert to come. Unfortunately, crowd control here is a good bit more chaotic than in the outer lobby. Guests make their way down a long ramp at the left-hand side of the wide lobby area, and tend to stop at the bottom of the ramp, near the left-most theater doors. There are plenty of additional theater doors and lots of empty space to the right, but cast members have to work hard to encourage folks to move along and make room for those behind them. Let's hope Disney comes up with a solution to this mayhem, as it's one of the few sour notes in the entire attraction. Eventually, though, the automatic doors open, and the crowd streams into the theater.

Once inside the theater, though, we learn just what Disney could (and should) have done in the inner lobby. Instead of a forlorn cast member with a microphone urging folks to move all the way to the right and to leave no empty seats, we hear Goofy's familiar voice moving about behind the wide curtain, cracking jokes and coaxing folks to move along. As a result, the entertainment begins as soon as folks enter the theater, and the crowd settles down quickly - a big improvement over 3D shows of the past. "We really wanted that to avoid having operations break the story that you're entering Mickey's concert hall, that this is his place," noted George. Mickey's concert hall is "like Seiji Ozawa at the Boston Symphony, it's Bernstein's, it's Barenboim's place."

George speaks passionately about Mickey's PhilharMagic (10/9/03)

What's the best seat in the house? "We really try to design it for every seat," said George. "The center tends to be a little better. But as we tested it we sat all over and we would adjust some of the mix levels just to make sure some of the dialogue got out to the back seats."

Finally, the lights dim, and the curtain goes up on an empty concert stage. Mickey's voice floats in from backstage, to ask Donald if he can set up the orchestra. Donald opens a trunk, and a cascade of animated musical instruments pours out to take their places on stage. Then our ducky friend spies Mickey's sorcerer hat, perched on the conductor's podium. He can't resist temptation, of course, any more than Mickey could back when he was the apprentice. In a flash the hat is on Donald's head, the instruments are in rebellion, and a magical whirlpool tries to suck Donald, hat, and all into its swirling depths. We feel the air around us being pulled into the abyss as Donald tries to "swim" right at us against the current, but eventually he loses the battle, and everything goes dark.

In a few moments we see Donald's frightened eyes glowing in the dark, and the lights come up to reveal that the narrow concert stage has disappeared, and it its place is a huge, curving screen that extends to the limits of our peripheral vision. From now on, Mickey's hat leads Donald on a merry chase from one animated scene to another. We're splashed with water when the Fantasia brooms empty their buckets, our mouths water at the scent of cinnamon-heavy apple pie when Lumiere invites us to be his guest; and we splash about some more with Ariel as she sings, "Part of Your World." Simba just can't wait to be king, we swoop over London with Peter Pan and Tink in a breathtakingly enhanced recreation of the original flyover (when PhilharMagic's over, visit Peter Pan's Flight right next door), and we just keep flying, right into a whole new world where Jasmine's perfume wafts on the air and Donald's flying carpet takes us on a Star Wars-style chase through the alleys of Agrabah. Finally, Donald does catch up with the elusive hat and (naturally), all's well that ends well, at least for everyone but naughty Donald.

As a side note, that alley chase is a favorite scene of ours. When Jennifer asked George about it he revealed, "Even I get sorta queasy (on roller coasters), and I was hoping this would work okay. One of the animators turned to me and said, 'Hey, you storyboarded it. Get over it!'"

One goal of 3D films has always been to break down the barriers between the flat action on the movie screen and the guests out in the audience. Originally, that was a matter of creating in-your-face objects that seemed to pop off the screen. Naturally, these startling effects are still the bread-and-butter of 3D, and the quality of those images keeps improving. But over the years innovators have gone on to engage all the senses, with enhanced surround sound, lasers, strobes, theatrical lighting, evocative scents, smoke and mist, rumbling floors, flight simulator-based ride vehicles, "bug infested" seats, under-seat air jets to simulate stampeding mice, explosions, and sprays of water droplets that suggest everything from frothing floods to spattering human guts. And when the movie screen became too limiting, Disney added Audio-Animatronics figures throughout the theater.

Now, purists will note that not every effect that I've listed has been used as part of a 3D attraction, but the theater technologies (except the vibrating chairs) that provide these effects are all present at Mickey's PhilharMagic. What's more, they're used with greater subtlety and expertise than ever before. Objects still do pop off the screen, but their movement is less startling, and the effect more humorous. Fortunately, bugs and mice are nowhere to be felt, and when water is sprayed in our direction we know that it's water - it's not masquerading as something a lot more creepy. Some of the most dynamic effects come from strobes and other lights, placed throughout the theater to supplement the lighting effects that occur on screen. You probably won't even know they're there, but they really help pull us into the action. In our interview, George Scribner pointed out that "one of the biggest goals right from the start was to make something that you could bring anybody to without scaring them. It was a huge, huge push and it was probably one of the original ideas, 'Look, we've really got to create a 3D movie that just would appeal to everybody,' and one of the ways of doing this was less of the what we call flinch moments (things that startle you) and more of 'reach' where elements come out further in space and linger so kids have a chance to try to reach for them."

The 165-degree wide screen (nearly three times the width of a normal screen) helps immerse us completely in the action. Disney boasts that this is the widest (150 foot) seamless movie screen in the world (not a Stitch to be found?). According to George Scribner, "Four projectors, two in the center in stereo, and two on each side" are required - the middle two to create the central 3D effects, and one each for the extreme left and right of the screen. These outer images aren't in pop-off-the-screen 3D, as our eyes can't perceive depth at the outer edges of our vision, but the computer-generated scenes are still "modeled" in 3D, just as they are in Pixar's computer-animated features. George revealed that they tested stereo-3D images on the outer screens "early on, but we were not successful. In terms of the story, it starts to get pretty distracting. (It's) better to focus. We're dealing with a range of audiences. It has to be clear and simple and to the point."

In 3D animation, characters actually become computer-controlled actors. Unlike hand-drawn animation, where nearly no drawing can be reused, these computer programs can be reused and improved indefinitely. In short, by computerizing all these classic characters, Disney has laid the groundwork for films and attractions yet to come. Animation purists will be quite satisfied with some characters, and disappointed by others. Disney has made a virtue of how master animators Nik Ranieri (Lumiere) and Glen Keane (Ariel) were brought in to help translate their creations into 3D computer "models." The rumor mill suggested that they were only brought in to help the animation crew out of a jam, but George Scribner made it clear that these animators were an integral part of the process from the beginning. Nik Ranieri, who animated the Lumiere segment, "was amazing," says George, "When that first scene first came up we had no notes on it. What you saw was (Nik's) first iteration to us."

Even with the masters' help, we can see that 3D animators still haven't solved the problem of modeling realistic human characters. This is not only true on this project, but on every 3D film produced by Pixar and other studios. But humans have always been the hardest to animate. This was as true in the days of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as it is today. Our brains are "hard wired" to recognize our own species above all others, so it's very hard to fool us. So, Aladdin and Jasmine (and to a lesser extent, Ariel) don't move or look quite as good as we'd hope. Neither, of course, did Snow White and Prince Charming. Fortunately, this shortcoming is not enough to tear our minds from the film's fantasy world, and that's what's most important.

I have one other quibble, one that comes from my past life in the music-for-movies business. My eyes have become very sensitive to lip-sync, and both Ariel and Aladdin's lips don't quite move as they should. When animating to an existing piece of music, animators often use a "click track" (metronome) to help them match the musical beat. Indeed, the rest of the film matches the music beautifully. Why, then, is there a problem with the singers lips? A good singer is always singing either ahead of, or behind the instrumental beat, rarely right on it. What we're seeing is probably a result of the animators using a click track that follows the orchestra's beat, rather than the singer's.

I have to apologize to George Scribner, who led the story development and animation process for PhilharMagic. During the interview, I told him I thought the story seemed more like a musical revue rather than a formal plot, with a relatively thin story line. I wasn't fair at all. The story is very carefully developed, moving Donald from one misadventure to the next. George mentioned that "the story evolved concurrently with the development of the music. We were searching for something a little bit more, so there was a through line that was pretty clear, with (Donald) searching for the hat... without being too complicated. I'm a big believer in very simple stories and great characters. I think we're at our best when we know who we're talking to. We don't make long movies so we don't have a lot of exposition time." Unlike Disney's classic 3Ds like Honey I Shrunk the Audience, MuppetVision 3D and It's Tough to be a Bug, Mickey's PhilharMagic has very little dialog. Sometimes we writers confuse "words" with "story." My bad!

The vast majority of the communication in Mickey's PhilharMagic is visual and musical, like a silent movie, ballet, or that animation masterpiece, Fantasia. Mickey's PhilharMagic may "say" very little, but it tells a full and rich story. We see Donald overstepping his bounds (as Mickey himself did in the Sorcerer's Apprentice), unleashing unintended mayhem, trying desperately to correct his error, and finally paying the price for his misdeeds. According to George, "The whole idea is to get you in the middle of the movie. To really fold you in... as if you and Donald were in those movies (together)."

Donald's tale is told in a language that can be understood no matter what your age or heritage. All the right emotional strings are plucked by the beloved songs and even more-beloved characters, and this fantasy in Fantasyland leaves us all happier and more beguiled than we have any reason to expect. So, four thumbs up for Mickey's PhilharMagic! This attraction will be on my "must see" list for many years to come.

Updated 12/29/06   

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