Star Wars: Battlefraud

Let’s cut right to the chase: my PS4 arrived last Saturday.

I had been saving up my pennies (I literally had a mason jar full of pocket change at one point) as well as Amazon Gift Cards I’d received as gifts in order to purchase my new toy. When it arrived I was neck deep in a basement bathroom project I’ve been working on but finally found time in the evening to set everything up.

The bundle I purchased came with a code to download Star Wars: Battlefront (and four other “classic” Star Wars titles). After the brief set-up I proceeded to download my new game… a staggering 25GB file. Because we still have [are stuck with] CenturyLink DSL as our ISP Saturday evening internet speeds tend to reside somewhere between elderly motorist and caffeinated sloth… so, I ended up going to bed and letting it download overnight. Early the next morning I was seated in front of my TV happily slaying rebels in beautiful HiDef. I even grinned in wide geekish delight when I realized the front of my PS4 controller would glow red when I was playing as Darth Vader.

That said, I’m somewhat torn on this game. It’s fun – and really beautifully detailed (especially Endor) – but what-the-actual-crap is going on with the micro transactions?! It is not an exaggeration to claim that 75% of this game is locked down until you’re willing to pay extra. In fact, the term “micro” transaction may be a bit of a stretch because the absolute minimum you’re going to pay is $15.

Electronic Arts will argue that the Season Pass is available for $50; allowing gamers to buy all current and future Expansion Packs right now and never pay again. First, that’s pretty dang presumptive. Sure, dropping a fifty up-front sounds like we’d all be saving $10… but that’s assuming everyone agrees that these unseen expansions are worth $15 each. Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeros was hardly worth it’s full price.

Second… um, hold the bus… are we all okay with paying $110 for video games now? Is that the new normal?

No, actually it isn’t because (wait for it) it’ll actually cost you MORE than that. While this came as no surprise to the Xbox faithful it was a bit like a bucket of cold water to us PlayStation fans: if you want to play online you must have a PlayStation PLUS membership; which will cost you $45 per year.

For those not already doing the math in your head the disc costs $60. For that price we get some training missions and something I’ll refer to as “Arcade Mode” which allows you to fight off endless waves of Stormtroopers (or rebels, depending on which side you choose, but let’s be honest it’s still the same experience) across four different maps. FOUR.

If you want to play online where the vast majority of the gaming modes and maps are available – arguably the reason you bought the game – you’re in for another $45.

If you want to have access to the most amount of weapons, maps, skins, “emotes” (which is super lame), and anything else you don’t even realize you’re missing out on it’s another $50.

All totaled, that’s $155 for an online third-person shooter. Holy. Crap.

That seems excessive.

But, yeah, it’s beautiful and sounds great and what’s playable out of the box is totes fun.

Oh, and they guy who designed the Goazon Badlands map needs a new title like “Honorary Jedi Master” or something. Amazingly good level design!

Chronological Star Wars Canon

As you may (or may not) know, shortly after the purchase of Star Wars, Disney and JJ Abrams made the landmark decision that everything that existed outside of George Lucas’ six movies – something referred to as the “Expanded Universe” – was no longer canon. This meant that literally decades of stories were wiped clean; freeing JJ Abrams to tell his story without the burden of continuity errors sure to be brought up by nerds not unlike myself.

Naturally, this enraged quite a few people… but not me. My opinion was that the vast majority of the Expanded Universe was pretty awful. The one rare gem is Timothy Zahn’s excellent “Heir to the Empire” trilogy (colloquially known as the Thrawn trilogy). Zahn basically knocks it out of the park – proven by the fact that most Expanded Universe stories reference characters and events in this series as canon.

Well, not anymore!

Disney was quick to fill this void with new “officially in-canon” stories – and I’ve listed the major entries below. Enjoy.

Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Episode II: Attack of the Clones
The Clone Wars (ABC TV)
Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Lords of the Sith by Paul S Kemp
Tarkin by James Luceno
A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller
Star Wars Rebels (DisneyXD)
Rogue One
Episode IV: A new Hope
Heir to the Jedi by Kevin Hearne
Battlefront: Twilight Company by Alexander Freed
Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
Battlefront (PS4)
Aftermath by Chuck Wendig
Bloodline by Claudia Gray
Lost Stars by Claudia Gray
Episode VII: The Force Awakens

2015 Book List

As I write this year’s entry I realize that, for some reason, I began and ended 2015 on either side of our globe’s poles. Of the two, I found the southern tragedy (Shackleton’s) was far more interesting. Both were excellently written and exhaustively researched; I heartily recommend both.

Late in 2015 my wife issued a challenge for both of us: read one biography on every U.S. President; so I begin 2016 with Ron Chernow’s Washington. Never one to stick solely to one literary genre I’m mixing it up by also reading a book about an alien attack on Earth. Y’know, because entertainment.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing *

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Off to Be the Wizard by Scott Meyer

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

The Men Who Would Be King by Nicole LaPorte

The Fold by Peter Clines

Armada by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (re-read) *

The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey

Under the Dome by Stephen King

Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones *

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides *

CURRENTLY READING

Fear the Sky by Stephen Moss

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

NEXT ON MY LIST

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

(As always, asterisks denote recommended titles).

Liberty and Immigration

Europe has been very accommodating and accepting of Syrian refugees. In 2014 alone the EU welcomed 283,532 refugees; the majority arriving from Syria. In light of recent events, as well as additional well-documented attacks, why would we want to emulate what the EU has done? Have events of the very recent past not been enough of a warning? As of yet, the left’s strongest argument for America accepting Syrian refugees has been to quote a passage engraved on the Statue of Liberty – a gift to the United States from the country most recently, and savagely, attacked.

Lady Liberty was constructed in France, shipped overseas in crates, and assembled on the already completed pedestal. The statue’s completion was marked by New York’s very first ticker-tape parade and a dedication ceremony presided over by President Grover Cleveland in 1886.

The poem in question – written by a foremother of the Zionist movement – was added 17 years later, in 1903.

The Statue of Liberty was originally conceived as a memorial to our independence not a symbol of immigration. However, it quickly became so due largely to immigrant ships passing by and heading toward Ellis Island. It was the addition of Emma Lazurus’ poem that cemented Miss Liberty’s role as unofficial greeter of incoming immigrants.

I find it terribly ironic how the left encourages [demands] that we all be progressive forward thinkers instead of “bitterly clinging to the past”… but then relies on a 112 year old sonnet, written by a staunch supporter and advocate of the Jewish state, to support their argument.

The poem is beautiful – presented as a simple distillation of common sense and provisions for fair dealing that none but the wicked and ignorant could oppose – but it is not the law.

Don’t misunderstand, I am not opposed to immigration. The liberty-loving are not defined by ethnicity… but neither is everyone equally liberty-loving as is often assumed by many Liberals today.

President Obama claims that States unwilling to accept the refugees his administration will be bringing into America “must be afraid of orphans and widows“. I’ve seen the video and images of these refugees and it’s largely young able-bodied men. I’m sorry, Mr. President, but that’s not widows and orphans – that’s an army.

Immigration policy, who we allow into our borders, ultimately defines the citizenry [ie: the electorate] of the nation, as well as the political culture and future trajectory of the nation.

You get the immigrants – and the nation – you ask for.

Armchair Imagineering: Hollywood Studios Edition

As of this last Saturday you are no longer able to ride the Backlot Tour at Disney Hollywood Studios theme park in Orlando – as it has now officially closed and is certainly slated for demolition.

When the Disney/MGM Studios opened on May 1, 1989 the Backlot Tour was an expansive two-hour behind-the-scenes excursion through multiple sets, prop and wardrobe warehouses, special effects workshops, soundstages and more. Over the years it has been reduced to a tram ride past rotting props, the park’s former icon (the Earful Tower), and a trip through Catastrophe Canyon.

Frankly, I’m glad to see it go.

The theme park stopped pretending to be a real working studio many years ago and has since transformed itself into the mish-mashed disaster we know and “love” today.

MGM

Here we see an aerial view of the park (found on Google Maps). It looks like an impressive amount of space… but not very much is actually used for the theme park.

The park was originally conceived and intended as a really-for-real movie and television studio that just happened to also be a theme park. Most of the buildings you see are [were] actual sound stages used for creating actual filmed entertainment. Newsies was filmed on location before the park even opened. The New Mickey Mouse ClubThunder in ParadiseLet’s Make a DealWheel of Fortune, and portions of Passenger 57 were all filmed on site. Additionally, some feature length cartoons were animated on-site in the now defunct animation building (most notably Mulan and Lilo & Stitch). If you’ve seen the humorous “How Did We Make Frozen” musical feature on the Frozen Blu-ray you’ve seen the inside of the Team Disney Orlando Feature Animation Building.

In this picture I have indicated (in red) some of the larger off-limit backstage areas. Please note the size difference between the Backstage Tour (purple) and the park’s actual backstage areas.

MGM2

There’s actually quite a bit of real estate back there currently occupied by ghosts of this theme park’s past (currently used as storage and offices for theme park middle-management types).

What if, by some small miracle, Bob Iger gave the green light to reclaim not only the Backstage Tour but also the really-for-real backstage areas. That sheer expanse of land might look something like this:

MGM3

Still with me?

Well, you may want to sit down because I’m about to propose something close to heresy. Disney dissent. An unorthodox plan sure to ruffle many feathers. On par with what happened over at California Adventure: a near-complete park overhaul.

It begins with saying a (fond?) farewell to Lights, Motors, Action

(I’ll take a moment to allow some of my Disney purists to regain their composure)

…and then moves swiftly into razing the never-truly-realized and somewhat-out-of-place Muppet area.

MGM4

Naturally, this means the New York and San Francisco facades would also go; after all, they were originally part of the Backstage Tour. Other than being home to the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights what other purpose does this area serve?

I understand that this [garish and ostentatious] Holiday spectacle is very likely Hollywood Studios most popular and most lucrative events but, surely, if need be, Disney could find another spot for all those twinkling lights. At one time – obviously before its demolition – there were plans to light all the home facades along residential street.

Besides, over the last eight years Disney has acquired properties (namely Pixar, Marvel and StarWars) that aren’t truly being leveraged in Orlando. If done right (i.e.: following in the quality steps of Disney California Adventure’s makeover) those three resources must be more valuable than two blocks of fake buildings strung with 10 miles of Christmas Lights.

MGM_NewLands

I imagine the image above is probably what you’re visualizing.

The new Star Wars land begins at the current Star Tours show building… the Pixar expansion stretches out from behind Toy Story Midway Mania and Pixar Place… and somewhere, sandwiched between the two, is a half-hearted Marvel area.

Disney can’t do much with Marvel anyway, right? I mean, Universal Studios already owns the theme park rights to ALL the good characters – plus they have some sort of 250-mile rule regarding the use of those characters (and Orlando is well within those 250 miles).

And that’s all true – and that’s also, I believe, exactly why Disney has been dipping deep into the back catalogue of Marvel characters and stories.

At the writing of this blog entry Disney has just banked $645 million of Guardians of the Galaxy. They have Big Hero 6 coming out this Christmas and AntMan coming shortly thereafter.

It is my opinion that Disney is preparing content to fill a theme park land.

Imagine walking through the Pixar Place expansion. An Incredibles attraction flows seamlessly into the Big Hero 6 attraction in the Marvel area. At the other end the Guardians  attractions blends nicely with the Star Wars area.

Exciting stuff, right?  …but what about the Muppets?

I actually do have a plan for them as well. Stay tuned! My next blog entry will detail my ideas for that valuable acquisition’s possible new home as well as expanded details on potential attractions for Hollywood Studios makeover.

40 Months

I can’t understand the negativity surrounding this ride.

From one Disney Fan forum to another, across the entire Internet, comments similar to the one above are being made regarding the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Ride at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.

Let me take a moment to explain, in a nutshell, where this general negativity mostly stems from.

For starters Disneyland originally took up 80 acres, not including the parking lot. From the groundbreaking (July 21, 1954) to the Grand Opening (July 17, 1955) was less than a year. The park opened with 18 attractions and cost $17 million.

By comparison, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train was officially announced January 18, 2011. At the conclusion of the recent three day press event it was revealed that the ride’s Grand Opening would be May 28, 2014. For those keeping count that’s just over 3 years and 4 months (40 months total) for a single attraction. A single attraction that is measured in square feet – not acreage – and has an as of yet unknown price tag; but is likely well within the seven-digit range.

As an aside, for many fans it really took Disney twenty years to replace the previous bona-fide E-Ticket attraction (20K Leagues, which was permanently closed in 1994) with a ride that most people are referring to as a D+ attraction (not quite good enough to be considered an E-Ticket).

I’m going to go ahead and assume that the people [trolls] making the type of comment I’ve paraphrased above have no real agenda other than adding a modicum of drama to their otherwise dull existence. Or they live in a bubble.

These same people will go on to argue that, “Disneyland didn’t have a single ride that was half as complex as Mine Train.

This is an ignorant comment because complexity is always based on any one individual’s point of perspective. To a kindergartner basic algebra is immeasurably complex while a high school student simply finds algebra challenging. Chances are pretty good that an accountant or a mechanical engineer would describe algebra as relatively simple.

I do suppose, compared to what we’re able to do today, those 54 year old attractions seem somewhat simplistic.

However, what people need to understand is that in 1955 those tasked with creating Disneyland had to build everything without computer-aided drafting programs, the internet, quick-set concrete, pneumatic powered tools, and a whole slew of other modern advancements we take for granted. On top of that, very few people on Walt’s pilot team knew anything about building theme parks – they were all animators, storytellers and special effects artists.

Now, Walt did originally plan on hiring professional architects… but after a few preliminary meetings he concluded that the people who could best design Disneyland were members of his own staff.

If you’re a cartoonist and your boss asks you to design a theme park from the ground up… I bet you’d think that was fairly complex. In fact, your first question might have been, “What’s a theme park?

Numerable books, articles, and essays have been written documenting the fact that Walt’s team had little to no experience in what they were being asked to accomplish. Here are just a few notable members of Walt’s original team:

Herb Ryman – Storyboard Illustrator, Art major.

Bill Cottrell – Animator, English and Journalism major.

Marc Davis – Animator, Fine Arts major.

Alice Davis – Former undergarment designer for Beverly Vogue & Lingerie.

Sam McKim – Child Actor and Movie Extra, Art Major.

Dick Irvine – Former 20th Century Fox Art Director, Art major.

Roger Broggie was a special effects artist with only vocational machine shop training. Because of his interest in 1/8 scale model trains he became the mechanical engineer responsible for building the Disneyland Railroad.

Ken Anderson was an animator and art director for 44 years… but he did study Architecture at the University of Washington. Knowing this, Walt put Ken in charge of designing Peter Pan’s Flight, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and Storybook Land (among others).

One of my absolute favorites is Joe Fowler – a former rear admiral in the US Navy (retired). Joe was hired while Walt was looking for someone with any working knowledge of paddle steamers. He ended up becoming the construction boss over the entire Disneyland project; then Joe stayed on as theme park general manager for 10 years.

Read that again. Slowly. Former US Navy Rear Admiral becomes the General Manager of the “Happiest Place on Earth” with zero theme park experience.

Bob Gurr was hired specifically to design the Autopia vehicles and was later retained by Disney because of how valuable his design and engineering skills were. Bob went on to design just about every single vehicle at Disneyland and Walt Disney World – including even the parking lot trams!

Some people will point to the fact that it was easier to build Disneyland because it was previously just an open field (orange grove, really) and that the Mine Ride needed to be built in the middle of the most popular theme park on earth!

For as impressive as building a brand new ride in the middle of an operating theme park is… it’s not like this was the first time. Disneyland 1959 comes to mind. Three major attractions built in the middle of an operating theme park. Construction began in the summer of 1958 and was finished by June 14, 1959. One of those three rides just happened to be the world’s very first tubular steel roller coaster; and it also happened to be in the shape of an immediately identifiable mountain.

Lastly, much of the negativity comes from the perceived notion that New Fantasyland was supposed to be Disney’s answer to Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Universal began construction in January 2008 and their Harry Potter themed land was open to the public June 18, 2010 (29 months later).

New Fantasyland was announced September 12, 2009 and construction permits were filed on February 22, 2010. The first major visible milestone wasn’t reached until April 2010 when the large faux tree (formerly located in Pooh’s Playful Spot) was moved in front of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh dark ride.

From February 2010 to May 2014 is four years and three months (52 months total).

In December 2011, Universal Studios confirmed that they were working on a Wizarding World expansion. Construction walls went up around the former Jaws / Amity backlot area on January 3, 2012 and by summer the entire area had been flattened. Support construction could be witnessed as early as July 2012. The Diagon Alley expansion is scheduled to open mid-June, 2014.

Again, from demolition of existing infrastructure to opening day will have been about 29 months.

Keep in mind, during this time Universal also built out the Simpsons area and added the new Transformers and Despicable Me rides. Of those three, Transformers uses exciting new technology (blending 3D film with animatronics and state-of-the-art environmental effects), has received rave reviews, and certainly ranks among theme park guests as an “E-Ticket” attraction. It alone was built in 11 months.

At this point many of you must be saying to yourselves, “Disney had to have done something else during their 52 month construction timeline!

Yes, they did. They shortened the Country Bear Jamboree, built infrastructure for the billion-dollar NextGen initiatives, placated bored and irritated guests who were standing in 150 minute lines by adding some interactive queue elements, repainted every single building up-and-down Main Street USA (twice?), removed a beloved bakery and replaced it with a Starbucks, and (ending on a high-note) undid the Eisner-era travesty that was The Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management.

If you’d prefer I include the significant additions across the entire Florida property Disney also replaced “Honey I Shrunk the Audience” (a 16-year old attraction) with Captain E-O (a 24-year old attraction) and introduced the Wild Africa Trek $150 add-on experience at Animal Kingdom. Disney also updated the Star Tours film, ride technology, and queue.

For those wondering… THAT is where all the negativity is coming from. In short: Universal has built two major expansions and added various other attractions in the time it has taken Disney to build one.

The comparisons are certainly mounting and people are beginning to look less favorably on the Central-Florida juggernaut that Walt built.

A Brief History of Disney’s Frozen

Now that Frozen has become the top grossing animated film of all time it may be hard to believe that this box office juggernaut was plagued with problems, and trapped in development hell, dating all the way back to World War II.

It’s true. Disney’s animation department always saw great cinematic possibilities with the source material, but Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen proved to be quite problematic.

The story begins sometime in 1943 when Walt Disney and Samuel Goldwyn met to discuss the possibility of collaborating to produce a biography film of author and poet Hans Christian Andersen. The original idea was that MGM’s studio would shoot live-action sequences of Andersen’s life and Disney would create animated sequences of Andersen’s stories (including The Little Mermaid, The Little Match Girl, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, Thumbelina, The Ugly Duckling, The Red Shoes, The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Snow Queen).

Right away Walt’s team of storytellers and animators encountered difficulty with many of Andersen’s stories but, for the sake of this blog entry, most notably The Snow Queen. Simply put, they couldn’t find a way to make modern audiences relate to the Snow Queen’s character. This, among other things, eventually led to the cancellation of the Disney-Goldwyn project.

Interestingly, MGM did go on to produce its very own live-action film in 1952 starring Danny Kaye in the titular role. The film was extremely successful; receiving six Academy Award nominations the following year. Meanwhile, back at the Disney Studios, development work on all of the Andersen fairy tales, was suspended.

The Snow Queen – a concept sketch by Marc Davis.

After the smash success of The Little Mermaid in 1989 Walt Disney Feature Animation reassumed work on their adaptation of The Snow Queen but, shortly after Glen Keane quit the project in 2002, the project was completely scrapped. Apparently, at some point Michael Eisner even offered his “support” to the project – suggesting that The Snow Queen should be handed off to Pixar Animation Studios (which may very well be the reason Keane threw in the towel).

The next attempt started in September 2008, after Chris Buck pitched The Snow Queen to John Lasseter (who by then had become Chief Creative Officer of Disney Animation); ironically, a story Lasseter had been extremely interested in pursuing as far back as the early 1990s when Pixar was working with Disney on Toy Story. John has since commented that he was “blown away” by some of Disney’s prior attempts at preproduction art (some of which are on display in this blog).

Development began immediately for a traditionally animated film under the new working title Anna and the Snow Queen. Anna’s name was added to the title because one of the major hurdles that Disney faced was that their main character, who happened to also be the title of the movie, was the villain!

Think about it: never before had Disney created a feature-length animated movie where the antagonist was the centerpiece of the film. Snow White, Cinderella, Hercules, Tarzan, Aladdin, even the Hunchback are all heroes and heroines. No villains in any title role and they weren’t about to start.

It didn’t matter. This small change in the film’s name had nearly no effect on the writing team.

By early 2010 the project entered development hell once again. With the success of Tangled Disney’s marketing team – concerned that an emphasis on the word “Queen” would have discouraged young boys from seeing the film – believed the best way to capture a wide audience was with another single-word title. At their advice, the movie’s name was changed to Frozen; but the writers were still stumped on how to make people care about Snow Queen’s character. The story they had developed was fun and light-hearted… but the Queen’s character just didn’t resonate. She wasn’t multi-faceted and test audiences were never really able to connect.

Using test-audience feedback, the production team drafting several different variations on The Snow Queen until the character and story felt relevant. At that stage, the first major breakthrough was the decision to rewrite Anna (the protagonist) as the younger sibling of Elsa. This one simple change established a family dynamic between the characters and changed the entire course of the film.

Regardless of the many changes throughout the story I find it striking how much the Snow Queen’s character design remained mostly consistent throughout the years. Marc Davis’ drawing (displayed at the top of this article) originally served as the inspiration for the never-built Ice Palace, a winter wonderland proposed for Walt Disney World. The sketch was one of the very last drawn by Davis before retiring in 1978. Most would agree that there is more than a passing resemblance to Elsa, from Frozen.

Truly, there are no such things as bad ideas at Disney – just good ideas whose time has not yet come.