REVIEW: ‘World of Color’ at California Adventure is a ‘new brand of night magic’
Disney’s California Adventure in Anaheim will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year and there is a mad effort underway by the theme park’s masters to make sure that birthday isn’t met with sour headlines about the years of corporate disappointment or seasons of tourist apathy. So it was that the “new” California Adventure — or the latest “new” California Adventure — was ushered in Friday by the scheduled premiere of a new attraction, a water-and-fire show called “World of Color” that not only lives up to the hype, it manages to tap into the company’s long but sometimes elusive tradition of true spectacle innovation.
On Thursday night, a VIP and media preview showed that five years of planning for the 26-minute musical presentation were well spent. The show uses characters and score elements from eight decades of signature Disney films (but the emphasis is absolutely on the post-”Little Mermaid” Disney releases and, wisely, on the evocative Pixar movies), but it’s the canvas that startles — 100,000 images of animation are presented (amid fireworks, lasers and occasional jets of flame) on walls of water and roiling curtains of mist. Instead of smoke-and-mirror gimmickry, though, the collective effect is emotional, dreamy and somewhat bold in this hard, rectangular era of digital-screen obsession.
The nighttime show is presented above Paradise Lagoon and uses 1,200 specially designed fountains that create water whips, wide fans, thick geysers and shimmery cascades that stand, dart or dance with “Fantasia”-like expression. But more than, say, the cavorting fountains of the Bellagio in Las Vegas, the waterworks for this show interact with projected images and the recorded music of 200 musicians, singers and voice actors for storytelling, which Disney does extremely well in its most shining moments.
The show starts off with a nod to its heritage — the name “World of Color” dates back to 1961, when RCA was the lone major manufacturer of color televisions, and, as owner of NBC, was trying to win over the black-and-white hearts of America with programming that promised rainbows of delight.
In September of that year, “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color,” premiered with an introduction by Walt Disney that – a la “The Wizard of Oz” — started in two-color drabness and gave way to a splash of hues. (You can see a version of that show’s opening in the vintage video above.) Images from that first introduction are used to open the new show, although (reportedly at the insistence of Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger) the music and image were remixed to make the sequence seem less clunky to the mash-up generation in the audience. The effect early on was to make “World of Color” feel like the first G-rated rave in California history.
The real pulse of this show, though, became quickly apparent with “Part of Your World,” a song from the 1989 film “The Little Mermaid” and the tie-in animation that played out on the smoke left behind from the show’s opening fireworks. The fountain water surged and shimmied, creating either a surprising sense of tidal power or jellyfish fragility. As the show continued, the artwork varied — “Toy Story” had some “Tron”-like angular constructs to it, “WALL-E” was like a gentle hologram from space, and “Pirates of the Caribbean” (the only live-action film included) evoked the imagery of the Disneyland ride of the same name.
The most powerful moments belonged to Pixar but, really, isn’t that the story of Disney’s recent history? The Disney princess sequences feel like Broadway performance numbers (and sometimes recalled the ethos of the vintage Esther Williams swimming-pool cinema) but the Pixar moments were emotional and economical; at their best, the soaring singing of Ariel or Pocahontas makes the listener lean back in awe — at their best, the words of Nemo or Woody make them lean forward for connection.
The animation was shown on water “screens” that stretch 380 feet wide and 50 feet high (although during the show some jets sent water spiking up to 200 feet), and there was no moment more compelling than the simple projected image of giant balloons that seemed to rise up out of the lagoon while the music from “Up” played on the impressive sound system. To Disney’s credit, not all of the storytelling was gentle or winking — a stampede of animated beasts and the sight of a young lion cub at the side of his dead father took on the feel of a primitive and celestial drama when painted on the low night sky with water, lasers and smoke.
The show is presented in a space that, obviously, was designed with the production in mind. At the preview, there wasn’t a practical opportunity to see what the show looked like from the rear, which would be the Paradise Boardwalk area, and the plum viewing areas at the foot of the lagoon are somewhat limited. In other words, if you want to see “World of Color” in its full majesty, get one of the Fastpass tickets that will be available each morning at the Grizzly River Run entrance that will lock in access for the prime viewing spots. Also, if you go to the very edge of the lagoon, you will get wet — perhaps even drenched — and the sudden heat from the pyrotechnics display is enough that it might upset very small children.
During the “Pirates” sequence, there was so much fire used that the park’s buildings were illuminated, undermining the illusions — not to mention the fact that (on a personal note) after a long day of walking the paths of a theme park, the cool breeze and clambake rhythms of “Finding Nemo” and “Little Mermaid” are a far nicer parental experience than flame-breathing pirates and the torch menace of gargoyles from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
Really though, if “World of Color” has any weak points, it might have been the presence of projection dome screens that jut up like giant lollipops – they seem pesky against the water-cloud canvas backdrop and, more than that, they seem like digital intruders at the feet of a giant. Those images distracted, not unlike the the glow of a cellphone screen that belongs to the texting teenager sitting next to you at an Imax screening of “Avatar.”
Speaking of “Avatar,” there’s a crush of interest now in 3-D after the release of director James Cameron’s iridescent jungle-moon epic, but as several sad imitators have proved in recent months, just slapping a film into 3-D as an afterthought isn’t the same as taking audiences to a new place. With “World of Color,” Disney and its hungry-for-a-hit theme park have got themselves a Cameron-like moment of glow-in-the-dark spectacle — and, just maybe, a new brand of night magic that can coax today’s youngsters to look up, up and away from their cellphones.