Monday, July 11, 2011

In Defense of the Happiest Cruise That Ever Sailed

I'm about to lay some heavy poetry on you. It's very deep. Take a deep breath and dive in when you feel like your mind and heart are open. Here we go...    

it's a world of laughter, a world of tears

it’s a world of hopes, and a world of fears
there’s so much that we share
that it’s time we're aware
it’s a small world after all

it’s a small world after all
it’s a small world after all
it’s a small world after all
it’s a small, small world

there is just one moon and one golden sun
and a smile means friendship to everyone
though the mountains divide
and the oceans are wide
it's a small, small world 

I hope you don't think I was joking. I'm completely serious. If, when you realized that it was the lyrics to "it's a small world", you skimmed through them and skipped to here, then I want you to stop, go back, and actually read the words with care as if you had never read them before. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Note to self and Tom: Baby's room will
be done in Mary Blair style.
What did you think? Didn't expect that, huh? The simplicity of those words makes it very easy to overlook how profound they actually are. 

I, for one, am pretty much tired of how much ridicule this ride gets. I know, I know. I get it. The song is repetitive and gets stuck in your head. It's unwaveringly cheerful. It's uncomplicated. It aims low by being simple enough for children to grasp easily and bright enough to keep their attention. It uses what some consider to be stereotypes to convey cultural differences quickly in a visual way. 

I've spent a good chunk of time hearing horror stories of being trapped on the ride and tortured by the music, seeing it parodied, sometimes in clever ways, such as in Shrek and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and sometimes in very mean-spirited ways, and reading a lot of pretentious academics who think that the ride is racist, insensitive and outrageous. And I'm over it. I want to make a case for this much maligned attraction and share why it is one of my absolute favorites.

First and foremost we need to discuss the look of the ride. It's style can be attributed to Mary Blair, who is my favorite Disney artist. I could devote an entire blog to my all-consuming love for her art. She worked on several Disney films- the major three being Peter Pan, Cinderella, and Alice in Wonderland- making art designed to give inspiration to the animators who would do the actual designs. She brought a sense of adventure with her touches of expressionism, whimsy with her use of color and joy with her artistry. Here are a few of my favorite Mary Blair inspirational art pieces.

Mary Blair's art is what my wildest imagination could look like on it's awesomest day. There is an exhibit in the Disney Gallery in Disneyland this summer devoted to Mary's work. Tom and I will be visiting in September before it closes. I'm already piddling in my shorts just thinking about the prospect of being surrounded by rooms full of her art. 

After she amicably left the Disney studio, Mary did a lot of children's book illustrating and ad work. When Walt was given the opportunity to create "it's a small world" for UNICEF at the World's Fair in New York in 1964, he thought of Mary and her artistic style. She had come to be known for her very distinct style of depicting children. 

Walt felt that Mary would be the perfect artist to give a visual style to the project and he was right. Along with Imagineers including Rolly Crump, Marc Davis and Alice Davis, she created one of the most memorable theme park attractions in the world. 

As an example of its impact, just think of that end scene, where everything is in white. It is pure magic. We've been so saturated with color over the course of our trip that the sudden shift in the color palette is stunning. By keeping everything in the same shades of white, etc., the scene reinforces the unity of all the children just through the use of color, which I mentioned Mary was fantastic with. Though they are each different, they literally wear their similarities on their sleeves as a visual representation of a deeper truth. And white is the perfect choice. It is the color of promise yet to be fulfilled. Mary took the final scene and made the children of the world a blank canvas waiting to be painted on. That is the work of a brilliant artist. 

She came back to do concept work and designs for the attraction and continued to lend her talents to Disney parks, including the amazing murals in the Contemporary in WDW with the famous five-legged goat.

Next time you're on the ride, a fun thing to do is to look for Mary Blair herself on the ride. In both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, a doll that looks like her was added to commemorate her singular contributions to "it's a small world". Try to spot her next time you ride. She looks like this:

Of course the attraction is simple. Of course it is bright and colorful. Of course it boils everything down to the essence. This ride is intended as a gift to the children of the world. As a child, all my mind thought about was how cool all of these other places must be and how much I wanted to learn more. To me, that is accomplishing the noble task that Walt set out to do. 

Let us not forget that we are not exploring the world's socio-political interactions for a doctoral thesis. We are introducing young ones to a representation of other young ones all over the world so that they can see themselves in them. What kid doesn't have a ball pointing out different countries and cultures while in that boat and feeling so proud when they can identify them? At the same time, children are not pandered to. There is enough going on, enough details and surprises, that even now I find new things to charm me. I still have codfish mouth every time.

If the visual design engages you with other cultures, the much-maligned song unifies everything. Originally each country was going to sing its national anthem. When they realized how cacophonous that would end up, Walt brought the Sherman Brothers, who were working on Mary Poppins, in to write a song that could be used throughout. It gives all of the children one single voice, even when they are speaking a different language. 

The song was originally written as a slower, wistful, even sad song. Look at those lyrics again. It's not as peppy as you assume from the cheerful arrangement. Along with the laughter, there are tears. Along with hope, there are fears. It's a plea for unity as much as it is a celebration of it. Through the simplest gesture, like a smile, we can reach across borders, real and imagined, and create a world like the one we are sailing through on the ride. A world of joyousness and togetherness. 

I'm no fool. I am, however, an optimist. Right now,  I live in a country where red states and blue states spar constantly through the representatives they have chosen. Where you can be considered a second class citizen because of who you love, the color of your skin, or the God that guides you. Where there doesn't seem to always be the hope and promise of a brighter tomorrow for the next generation. To me, "it's a small world" is kind of like the golden rule. Things really can be that simple. The golden rule teaches us to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Likewise, "it's a small world" teaches us that no matter how different someone may seem, they are human just like you, and they are deserving of kindness. That to me isn't trite. It's truth. A truth that we need to hear now more than ever. You can make the world that we live in a better place by keep wisdom like that in your back pocket. 

It is time for the backlash to the backlash to begin and for it to be cool to love this ride again. I have no qualms about shouting from the rooftop how much I adore it. When I went to Disneyland for the first time with Tom last year and we got to the area of "it's a small world", I actually wept. It was so beautiful and moving. Mary Blair's influence is all over the whole corner of the park, making it into a mini Mary Blair land. The ride's gorgeous facade and topiaries stood there, inviting me in for five of the loveliest minutes I've ever spent in my life. I sat in that boat, which has been sailing for 45 years, and watched the real children's faces light up as we travelled through a blissful world free of hate and cruelty. I held the hand of the man that I love, got swept up in the magic and gave the dream of a better world for my children permission to stay afloat.  


  1. I love that ride too. I really love the updates too. Dyllan's eyes lit up and a smile never left her face as we floated through. I think the addition of familiar characters from the movies is a nice addition to the ride. It is one that I always look forward to.
    Thanks for the cool information. I didn't know any of that.
    Oh and I have always liked the song and its message too. :)

  2. Favorite ride after the Haunted Mansion. No joke.