Disney, Universal put new spin on books turned into movies

The summer opening of Disney’s Cars Land and Universal Studios’ Transformers 3D attraction have put a new spin on an old saw about books turned into movies.

Only here, skip the movie and ride the ride.

This comes from someone who didn’t care for “Transformers” and couldn’t even make it through the sequels on cable. Similarly, whatever their box office (and perhaps more significantly, boy-oriented merchandise) credentials, the “Cars” movies represent a rare blemish on Pixar’s otherwise nearly flawless creative track record.

Watching the movies, it wasn’t hard to see that the concept of cars whizzing around had “theme park” written all over it. And sure enough, the centerpiece Radiator Springs Racers is an impressive experience, just as the Transformers ride represents a dazzling sensory onslaught that feels like a next-generation enhancement of Star Tours — which, come to think of it, is considerably more fun than most of what’s found in George Lucas’ trilogy of prequels.

In the interest of full disclosure, my wife works for Disney Imagineering, the unit that devises technology for the studio’s parks. But this is really not about the rides but rather what’s happened to movies, with story now emphasized less than experience.

It’s a common complaint among old fogies — or what are regularly dismissed as such — that overwhelming demand for cinematic spectacle has come at the expense of storytelling. And it’s true some critics paint with too broad a brush on that front, failing to engage comicbook and fantasy-inspired fare simply because it’s not their cup of tea (see A.O. Scott’s New York Times review of “The Avengers”).

Suspicions about moviemaking priorities grew when Disney began turning rides into films a decade ago, highlighted by the same-year release of “The Haunted Mansion” and “Pirates of the Caribbean,” with the latter’s success helping quell grumbling about the dearth of creativity the transplant procedure suggested.

Nevertheless, the relationship between movies and theme parks tells us quite a bit about the modern shift toward global tentpoles — but stripping away the lion’s share of dialogue and story, as these rides do, actually distills the product down to more satisfying bite-sized form, mostly by purging the brain from the equation.

Thinking back to some classic action-adventures, it’s not hard to envision “Gunga Din” or “The Thief of Bagdad” (released in 1939 and ’40) birthing all sorts of theme attractions, but those films actually took time to tell fully realized stories between scenes of elephants plodding toward bridges and magic-carpet rides.

Conventional wisdom also dictates wildly popular movies make the best rides, a point buttressed by the helpful spell Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter has cast over attendance figures in Orlando. But if this summer tells us anything, it’s that the relationship between quality in theaters and parks is now very tenuous — recalling how “Peter Pan,” hardly the standout among Disney’s animated classics, became its most enjoyable Fantasyland ride.

A related question is whether box office success ought to be a prerequisite for theme-park immortality. Because if not, there are parts of “John Carter” that would make one helluva ride, and it might even help Disney unload some of those unsold toys and T-shirts.

The most irritating part for more discerning moviegoers is studios’ desire to keep churning out sequels to sustain a movie property’s merchandising apparatus, including the lines for rides. If so, please be advised Disneyland’s Indiana Jones adventure remains a hoot despite the desire to expunge “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” from my memory. Although truth be told, the “Survive a Nuclear Blast Inside a Refrigerator” ride would undoubtedly be the best ever.

Borrowing from the aforementioned “Thief of Bagdad,” there’s a wonderful line spoken by the villainous wizard played by Conrad Veidt to the young boy he’s magically transformed into a snarling mutt.

“Strange how an unpleasant child can make a decent dog,” he sneers.

Strange, too, how a mediocre movie can make a first-rate theme-park attraction. Although given the priorities underlying the metamorphosis of movies into commodities, perhaps not so strange at all.

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