On friday night Viv and I and our friend David went to see Pirates of the Caribbean again, just before it ends its’ run at the Cinerama.
I spotted a few little continuity errors and plot holes this time – minor stuff, really – but in the whole, the film held up very well. I went googling for obsessive fan sites that chronicled both these issues and the points of congruence with the ride that inspired the film, and unsurprisingly, that’ll await the DVD release, by and large.
I suppose that this is the appropriate time for me to discuss my own avid appreciation of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland and Disney World. The last ride in the parks which Walt Disney personally oversaw the development of, I think that the ride itself – with the film Pinocchio – represents the highest artistic accomplishment of Walt Disney as an artist, as auteur. I noted that I was concerned that the film’s unalloyed success might bring changes to the ride itself, something that I regard as undesirable.
Pinocchio is routinely cited as the greatest of the classic Disney animated films, both technically and as a mature work of art that embraces the dark undertones of the children’s folktales that inspired the series of films that Disney produced between the Depression and the 1950’s. The wooden puppet endures fearful situations rendered with genuine dread and has long been hailed as the darkest work of Disney’s imagination.
I hold the opinion, however, that the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at the parks goes farther than Pinocchio in both depth of artistic resonance and the extent to which it presents a grim and foreboding world of disrupted urban life, ruthless obsession, and stark mortality.
The ride is often paired in the public mind with the Haunted Mansion, an attraction developed nearly at the same time and featuring the imagery of death and morality as well. The most recent evidence of that pairing, of course, is the forthcoming film, coming on the heels of the triumph of the Pirates film.
There are two remarkable fan sites that are devoted to these attractions – DoomBuggies.com and the same-creators TellNoTales.com. Both sites feature detailed walkthroughs of the attractions and extensive fan-supplied lore about each.
But to the point.
The ride opened at Disneyland in California on March 18, 1967 (Florida’s Disney World version opened in 1973). It was developed between 1964 and 1967, and Walt himself passed away in December, 1966. What was happening in the world at that time? Well, the pot of the nineteen sixties was just coming to a boil. Assassinations, riots, blackouts, political corruption, the Vietnam war, pollution – America’s self-image was being seriously challenged.
As this was coming to a head, Disney himself was facing his mortality. His success depended on his ability to hold up a mirror to the American public. He provided myths. His stories allowed the exploration of troubling aspects of the world and the comforting, preferably humorous and practical resolution of the problematic issues in the narrative.
It takes no great leap of the imagination to see Detroit and Watts burning beyond the ramparts of Port Royal in the context of the ride. Look there! The comical pirates chasing women, wine and food in the streets of the sacked and burning colonial outpost! Why, it’s the media image of the Summer of Love! The pirates are hippies and civil rights agitators, and are presented as self-indulgent, silly-looking threats to the social order.
Ah, but do note the troubling point: Port Royal is sacked; the pirates are carrying away the loot. The last thing the visitor sees is the pirates fighting among themselves as the building they are in tumbles down about them, all aflame. No happy ending here, mateys. America burns.
I accept that the majority of visitors will not see things this way. It seems clear to me that this interpretation never occurred to Walt as it was being developed, for example. Yet, I think the failure of the ride to present a traditional happy ending actually has much to do with the success of the ride. It’s unique in Disney’s portfolio. Ah, I would love to have an interview with Walt himself concerning the development of the attraction, its intended meanings and so forth. Of course, it’s far too late for that.
Dead men tell no tales.