A day spent at Disneyland — or, for that matter, DisneyWorld — is a day spent surrendering yourself to a barrage of Disney branding. It is to be expected; after all, if you didn't want to have this much Mickey Mouse crammed all up in your grille, you should've gone somewhere else. I'm sure Knott's Berry Farm would love the patronage.
So it shouldn't be surprising that, when introducing new live attractions, Disney would make them very Disney-centric. What is surprising is that the least complicated of the three new shows on display — Mickey and the Magical Map, Beauty and the Beast and a refurbished World of Color — is actually the most impressive.
Mickey and the Magical Map is the most standard of the bunch. Set on a multi-tiered stage against a massive digital screen, it follows Mickey in full sorcerer's apprentice mode as he mucks with a map that sends Mickey — and a host of costumed "cast members" — through a musical tour of some of Disney Animation's lesser-known movies. Jungle Book's "I Wanna Be Like You" and The Little Mermaid's "Under the Sea" are the most recognizable songs featured, but it's hard to find the kid who can sing along to "Just Around the Riverbend" from Pocahontas, "Dig a Little Deeper" from Princess and the Frog or "Reflection" from Mulan. (Though, it must be said, bonus points for highlighting the Disney Princesses of color.) It's hard to escape the feeling, however, that the Magical Map began as a cruise ship revue and might play better to a, shall we say, captive audience.
The World of Color, however, is the sort of thing that could only exist at a theme park and it's the better for it. A water show that makes the fountains at Las Vegas' Bellagio look like a backyard sprinkler system, World of Color does this amazing thing: it turns a hundred-foot tall wall of mist into a movie screen upon which they show clips from Disney flicks. And it works amazingly well — snippets of Finding Nemo and Tangled and The Little Mermaid, complete with color-matched arcs and blasts of water that underscore the mood and tenor of the scene, become these multi-media installations, ephemeral and almost mystical. Of course, it gets less ephemeral/mystical when Cars and Pirates of the Caribbean get their spotlights and it becomes clear that the architects of the show felt the need to nod at what's popular, not just what's fitting. But that doesn't diminish was is a stunning technical achievement, a fluid blend of light and water and sound.
But the most impressive of the three was by far the smallest in almost every way. The stage is tiny, you can count the number of performers on one hand: Beauty and the Beast as performed in the Fantasy Faire's Royal Theatre. Two men, a woman, and a couple of helpers tell the story of that French book-nerd Belle and her romance with a cursed nobleman who lives with talking houseware. It is both a straight-up retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story and a wonderfully savvy meta-deconstruction of it. It is comic theater at its most elemental — or, at least, as elemental as you'll find in Disneyland — and it's all the more interesting because of it.
Beauty and the Beast is also a welcome respite from what I can only describe as the medley-ization that occurs at a Disney park. It struck me that the entire day is designed to feel like a montage — you never get full scenes, very little is presented to a visitor in its entirety. Everything is sized for immediate consumption so that you can move on to the next thing. It's all a greatest hits package. And given that Disney has so many hits, part of that is understandable.
But it's also nice to take in an entire story, from beginning to end. To remember why these products are so beloved in the first place. To recall from where a place like Disneyland draws its true power.