Walt Disney World at 50

In October 1971 Walt Disney World first opened its doors, making this month the park’s fiftieth anniversary. Though competitors have risen in the years since – Universal Studios most prominently, but there are others – Disney is still the world’s preeminent theme park brand in 2021, which is no small accomplishment!

2006 was the last time I managed to get to Walt Disney World in Florida, and it seems unlikely I’ll be able to make another trip – my health generally prevents me from travelling these days. But I’ve made some wonderful memories at Walt Disney World, from my first trip when I was very young with my parents through to an incredibly fun jaunt with friends while at university. Walt Disney World has always had a lot to offer – and not just for children.

Mickey and Minnie are celebrating 50 years of Walt Disney World!

Recently I put together a list of ten of my favourite Walt Disney World attractions – and you can find it by clicking or tapping here. Long story short, some of the best experiences at Disney – at least in my opinion – aren’t the most extreme roller coasters with the highest drops or fastest speeds. What Walt Disney World has always excelled at is its world-building, crafting lovingly-detailed experiences that don’t need to rely on speed or being an adrenaline rush to hook riders in.

Attractions like Spaceship Earth, the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover, and even the Monorail are all incredibly fun to ride over and over again, and in many ways it’s these slower rides that made me fall in love with the Disney theme parks. It’s this combination of slow rides, dark rides, fast-paced rides, shows, and simulation experiences that has meant Walt Disney World has so much to offer to such a range of visitors. Many theme parks – especially here in the UK – tend to be built around one or two big attractions, and these are almost always ultra-fast adrenaline rush roller coasters. Once you’ve ridden one or two, you’ve ridden them all!

The Tomorrowland Transit Authority is one of my favourite rides!

Every aspect of Walt Disney World was planned in detail – with early plans coming from Walt Disney himself before his death in 1966. The idea of corridors running underground to allow employees – better known as “cast members” – to secretly move from one location to another out of sight of guests is a genius move. It means that guests never see a character “out of place;” no cowboys in Tomorrowland nor spacemen in Frontierland.

On a smaller scale, no shop in Walt Disney World sells chewing gum. Why? Because it’s one of the worst forms of litter and the hardest to clean. If every road and pavement were covered with discarded gum the entire park would feel ever so slightly less polished, and Walt Disney was very keen that visitors should feel as if they’d been transported to a magical land away from their everyday lives. He wanted everyone to have the perfect experience – at least within their budgets!

Walt Disney.

The food at Walt Disney World is also exquisite. The park has a huge variety of restaurants and fast-food joints both in the parks and attached to the numerous hotels spread across the property. Many of these are themed experiences in and of themselves, offering guests a chance to dine in the banquet hall of a castle or an orbiting space station – with themed menus to match. And of course, many restaurants bring Mickey Mouse and other characters right to the table.

Walt Disney World didn’t pioneer the concept of the theme park. It wasn’t even the first Disney theme park, with California’s Disneyland having been open for more than sixteen years before it came along. But Walt Disney World took the theme park concept and honed it to near-perfection, having learned the lessons not only of Disneyland but also of other theme parks as well. With years of experience under their collective belts, the team behind Walt Disney World came together to build what they hoped would be the best theme park in the world. Fifty years later the park is still right at the pinnacle of the theme park industry, so it’s hard to say that they didn’t succeed.

The original Walt Disney World logo. It was in use from the park’s opening in October 1971 until 1996.

There are controversies about the way Walt Disney World came to be, of course. Not least the Walt Disney Company’s policy of buying up the land that the parks would ultimately be built upon using dummy companies with fake names to avoid the price shooting up! And of course it’s sad that Walt Disney didn’t live to see his project to completion.

As we look back at Walt Disney World, it’s only natural to look forward, and I’m afraid it’s here that I see new controversies, as well as problems ahead.

In the early 2000s when I was planning a trip to the parks with friends, it was quite achievable for students to put a bit of money aside from part-time jobs to be able to afford not only to visit Walt Disney World, but to do so in style! After saving up, my friends and I were able to afford flights there and back from the UK, as well as a moderately-priced hotel, park tickets, food, and we still had money left over for souvenirs. I can’t remember the exact amount of money we spent apiece, but none of us were wealthy and we still managed to have a wonderful time.

Visiting Walt Disney World is an increasingly expensive proposition.

Nowadays, the inflated prices Walt Disney World charges – and the dozens of hidden extra charges – make it so much more difficult to consider a trip there a worthwhile investment for a lot of folks. Walt Disney World now charges for parking – even at hotels – which is something that never used to happen. And coming very soon is the “Disney Genie Plus” app and programme, which includes paying to skip some of the lines at popular attractions – including on a ride-by-ride basis in some cases, with prices rising dynamically depending on how busy the park gets.

Add into the mix the generally inflated prices of everything from tickets to food, and Walt Disney World is no longer a holiday within reach of everyone. It’s beginning to feel like an attraction targeting wealthier folks exclusively, and when a vacation for a small family is now easily running around the $6-8,000 mark (not including flights, which from the UK aren’t exactly cheap) it’s hard to argue with that assessment.

The new Disney Genie Plus paid-for service is going to make Walt Disney World more expensive – and a worse experience.

Just to give one example, a single portion of popcorn from one of the popcorn stands scattered throughout the parks now comes in at $5.25 (£3.90). That’s a heck of a lot for something as basic as popcorn, so you can imagine that other snacks and meals are priced similarly. Because Walt Disney World knows it has a captive audience, prices have shot up. It was never a cheap place, don’t get me wrong, but recent years have seen price hikes left, right, and centre.

In addition, Walt Disney World is losing many of the things that made it unique. One-of-a-kind attractions are being replaced with bland-looking roller coasters, and rides that used to have unique animatronic characters are being closed down or altered to include Disney-branded characters. One of my favourite rides at Epcot was called El Rio del Tiempo, and it was a slow boat ride that brought guests a small taste of Mexico and Mexican history. Since I last visited it’s been re-themed to include Donald Duck.

El Rio del Tiempo is one of many Walt Disney World attractions that you can’t find any more.

Rides and attractions like El Rio del Tiempo – and many more – were part of what gave Walt Disney World its unique charm. There were always Disney-themed rides like Peter Pan’s Flight or the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party (from Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland respectively), but they were balanced out by these other rides that weren’t associated with a film or television series. With some rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and Jungle Cruise having been turned into films in recent years, there aren’t many attractions left that exist purely for their own sakes any more. Perhaps I’m showing my age by lamenting that change of focus!

To end on a much happier note, one of my favourite memories as a geeky, nerdy kid came at Walt Disney World in the early 1990s. Not long after having seen the Star Wars trilogy for the first time, I got to go on a Star Wars ride – Star Tours – at Walt Disney World. After queuing up excitedly, the moment the doors to the Starspeeder 3000 wooshed open for the first time was truly thrilling! Boarding an actual spaceship complete with a droid pilot and going on my own little Star Wars adventure felt like a dream come true.

I have incredible memories of Star Tours!

Walt Disney World has delivered an uncountable number of moments just like that one to children and to adults. My cousin visited a couple of years ago, and her daughter got a complete “princess makeover,” complete with makeup, a tiara, and a princess dress. Wherever she went all day long the cast members would bow and wave and treat her like a real Disney Princess. These kinds of once-in-a-lifetime experiences really don’t exist anywhere else, not in the same way. Just like I had my moment of wonder as I boarded a ship in the Star Wars galaxy, so too did my cousin’s daughter as she was transformed into a princess. Walt Disney World makes magical memories like that, and I hope it always will.

The only reason I criticise Walt Disney World for some of the recent changes – particularly the way things are being priced and the “stealth” costs like charging for hotel parking – is because I wish those kinds of experiences were available to as many people as possible. Walt Disney’s dream was that families could visit his theme parks together, and he even said: “Disneyland is a work of love. We didn’t go into Disneyland just with the idea of making money.” Try telling that to the executives of the company today, eh!

I doubt that I’ll ever get back to Walt Disney World. But the park holds happy memories for me from childhood – and from adulthood as well. I hope that the park succeeds and will endure for another fifty years, bringing those same happy memories to new generations.

All properties mentioned above are the copyright of The Walt Disney Company. Some images courtesy of The Walt Disney Company and the Disney Wiki. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Jungle Cruise – film review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Jungle Cruise.

Any review of Jungle Cruise on Disney+ needs to take into account the film’s price tag. Right now Jungle Cruise costs £20 in the UK or $30 in the United States to “unlock,” and thus the film’s value will vary from viewer to viewer. For my two cents, unless you’re a huge fan of the original Jungle Cruise ride at the Disney theme parks or a particular fan of either Dwayne Johnson or Emily Blunt, this is probably a film to wait for. In a matter of months, and certainly by Christmas, the film will be added to the regular Disney+ lineup, and though I had a decent enough time with Jungle Cruise, I’m not sure that I necessarily got £20 worth of enjoyment from it. If you’re on the fence, trying to decide whether to pay up or wait, I think this is one you can safely wait for.

That being said, Jungle Cruise was enjoyable. I’ve said this before, but in 2002-03 when Disney was talking about adapting Pirates of the Caribbean into a film, I thought it sounded like an atrocious idea! How could a theme park ride possibly translate to the screen, I wondered? I was wrong about Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl then, and if I had similar doubts about Jungle Cruise eighteen years later then I was wrong again! The film was decent, and paid homage to a classic ride which has been part of Disneyland since the very beginning.

Jungle Cruise poster.

If you’re fortunate enough to have ridden Jungle Cruise, you’ll recall that there is a “story” of sorts to the ride itself. Obviously the film takes liberties with this, chopping and changing things to make the story more suited to the screen rather than a semi-interactive theme park attraction. But I was surprised at just how well Jungle Cruise captured the feel of the original ride, with Dwayne Johnson’s character of Frank taking the role of the Disneyland boat captain from the attraction.

There were nods to other aspects of the ride as well, particularly in the film’s opening act with Frank’s literal jungle cruise entertaining the tourists with the same mixture of dad jokes and props as the ride itself. As the story went on, the film naturally stepped away from being true to the ride to focus on a story that was not dissimilar to the aforementioned Pirates of the Caribbean film, complete with cursed undead sailors, a magical macguffin, and lashings of aquatic adventure.

Quila hits the rapids!

There were several surprisingly poignant and emotional moments in Jungle Cruise which I wasn’t expecting. Aside from the typical Disney happily ever after ending (complete with a fake-out sad ending which preceded it) the tastefully handled moment where Jack Whitehall’s character of MacGregor came out to Frank was a very sweet inclusion. Not only did it add personality and dimension to both characters – MacGregor gained a backstory of rejection and further reason to follow Lily, and Frank came across as accepting and kind – but it was a huge step for representation and inclusion. Seeing MacGregor experience rejection yet find acceptance in the most unlikely of places is a powerful message, and the mere act of LGBT+ representation in a blockbuster film is always fantastic to see. Such a message is especially important for younger viewers.

While we’re discussing some of Jungle Cruise’s deeper themes, the film took a dim view of wealth, aristocracy, and closed societies – despite practically all of its main characters being drawn from the upper classes of their day. MacGregor’s unease at having to experience life away from his home comforts was initially played for laughs – though he did become more comfortable with it as the film reached its end. The villain of the piece being a German aristocrat was also a continuation of this theme, as was the initial depiction of Frank as the last independent river boat captain – and the poorest.

Dwayne Johnson as Frank, the riverboat captain.

Having seen a number of films with British villains over the last few years, the decision to make the German Prince Joachim the main adversary to Frank and Lily was actually a bit of a change. There was a time a few years ago where villains in cinema were often German – or of German extraction. But enough time has passed and enough other villains have come and gone that the return to a German villain didn’t feel like stereotyping or a trope in the way it might’ve done had Jungle Cruise been made in the recent past.

The story itself took a couple of unexpected twists. The revelation that Frank wasn’t who he seemed to be definitely came as a shock – but in a good way! Sometimes twists of this nature can feel rushed or like they jolt the story in an unwanted direction, but learning Frank’s true origin managed to avoid that pitfall. It made his character feel more rounded and gave him motivation. We learn why he wanted to take Lily upriver – and why he was so convinced she wouldn’t succeed in her quest to find the Tears of the Moon.

Lily was seeking the Tears of the Moon.

Frank’s “betrayal” of Lily and MacGregor – which he apparently set up off-screen with Trader Sam and her tribe – was perhaps the weakest moment in the story. It did nothing to endear us to Frank, and while it was arguably in character for him it robbed what was initially set up as a tense moment of practically all of its drama. Though the threat and peril were restored after a brief respite, the way the film handled this moment was poor overall.

Representation of native peoples and their relationship to colonists has come a long way in recent years, and when looking back at past Disney depictions of indigenous peoples – such as in Peter Pan or even the original incarnation of the Jungle Cruise attraction – the way the “headhunter” tribe was presented was an improvement. Considering the tribe played a relatively minor role in the film, what we saw worked well. The depiction retained some of the mystery that westerners have of indigenous peoples – something that the original ride drew on for part of its threat – yet at the same time made at least one key character relatable.

The tribal chief.

Jungle Cruise also didn’t shy away from depicting the brutality of colonisation, showing Conquistadors savagely attacking a tribe of native people even after being offered shelter, food, and medicine. However, the film then immediately strayed into once again mystifying the tribespeople by giving them magical powers seemingly connected to the Tree of Life. Overall, the way Jungle Cruise handled its characters’ interactions with indigenous people was better than in some Disney titles, particularly older ones, but arguably imperfect and verging into some of the tropes commonly associated with such tribes in fiction.

Aside from the opening act, which was set in London, and a few other scenes near the beginning of the piece, Jungle Cruise broadly stayed true to its premise as a film about a voyage on a riverboat. The boat itself had character, being old and beaten-up, and was memorable for the way it looked while again retaining some of the charm of the original Disneyland attraction. Quila (Frank’s boat) was not only the characters’ home and method of transportation, but also played a key role toward the end of the story by blocking the river water and saving Lily and MacGregor. Giving the boat more to do in the story than simply be an ever-present stage for the characters made a huge difference to the film, and made its setting feel meaningful.

Quila – the boat – was almost like an extra character in the film.

Though the Conquistadors wanted to kill Frank – and later Prince Joachim – they seem to have had similar objectives when it comes to acquiring and using the Tears of the Moon, and as a result some of the moments toward the film’s climax felt rather forced. Obviously Lily and MacGregor had an incentive to stop the Prince and his gang of German submariners, as they clearly had nefarious intentions for the magical macguffin. But the Conquistadors had basically the same objective as Frank – to lift their curse – and it felt like there could have been a moment near the end of the film where they had all realised that they didn’t need to fight. In fact I initially wondered if Prince Joachim’s betrayal of the Conquistadors was going to set up precisely that kind of storyline. It feels like a miss that it didn’t, as the film basically ended with the heroes defeating two parties of villains.

There’s always room in fiction for that kind of narrative; not every story has to depict an emotional coming together and teaming up to defeat a worse villain. But the disturbing implication to the way Frank’s story ended is that he simply left the Conquistadors to endure endless torture; they’re unable to die and it didn’t seem as though he took action to lift their curse. Perhaps this is Disney leaving the door open to a sequel?

Did Frank and Lily condemn the Conquistadors to eternal torture?

Speaking of the way the film ended, with Frank and Lily only able to pluck a single petal from the tree, all Lily really got to do was write up her adventure and land herself a job. In the male-dominated world that the film depicted that is unquestionably a victory for her – but her original ambition had been to use the Tears of the Moon to “revolutionise medicine” and save countless lives, not least in the ongoing First World War. It seems as though this ambition was thwarted, yet the film skips over this point.

Jack Whitehall is not someone I would have expected to see in a film like Jungle Cruise, but he put in a creditable performance as MacGregor. His stand-up act often draws on his self-styled “posh” image, and his character felt like an exaggerated version of that in some respects. Emily Blunt was outstanding in the role of Lily, bringing real personality to the character and crafting a heroine that we as the audience wanted to get behind. Dwayne Johnson seemed at first to be playing a fairly typical “Dwayne Johnson” role, but the addition of an unexpected backstory for his character of Frank took the character to a different place and forced him to step out of his comfort zone and play things differently as the film passed the two-thirds mark. Though perhaps it wasn’t an Oscar-worthy performance, I found Frank to be a believable protagonist and someone I wanted to see succeed.

MacGregor and Frank shared a genuinely touching moment in Jungle Cruise that I wasn’t expecting.

Jungle Cruise relied heavily on CGI almost throughout, and not all of the animation work was as realistic as it could’ve been. Recent productions, even on television, have seen some truly outstanding CGI work, and while nothing in Jungle Cruise was awful or even immersion-breaking, there were quite a few elements that didn’t look quite right. At a number of points I felt that some of the CGI had that “too shiny,” plastic look that plagued CGI a few years ago, and I really thought that animation – especially cinematic animation – had begun to move past that particular issue.

I would’ve liked to have seen more physical props and practical effects, and the fact that a large portion of Jungle Cruise was filmed with green screens and other modern tricks wasn’t as well-concealed as it might’ve been. And perhaps this final point on visuals is a bit of a nitpick, but the fact that a number of the so-called “jungle” sequences were filmed not in South America but in Hawai’i was apparent to anyone who knows their flora! Different biomes do look different from one another, and a few scenes in particular which supposedly took place on the banks of the Amazon were very clearly filmed elsewhere. I know that’s a minor point that won’t have bugged many people, but I found it worth noting.

Happily ever after for the main characters!

So that’s about all I have to say, I think. Jungle Cruise certainly compares to the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean and other fantasy-adventure titles. It was fun, emotional at points, and set up its trio of main characters for a story that was easy enough to follow for kids while still having plenty to offer for adults as well. It stands up well against many adventure films, including classics of the genre like Indiana Jones – which Jungle Cruise was clearly channelling at points!

I had an enjoyable time with Jungle Cruise, and it was a fun way to spend a couple of hours. Whether it will be worth the cost of admission on Disney+ is something everyone will have to decide for themselves, but I think it’ll still be an enjoyable watch in a couple of months’ time. Jungle Cruise presented a fun story that drew inspiration from the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean, yet stayed true to its origins as a theme park attraction. It was a fun ride down the river with Frank, Lily, and MacGregor, and I’m sure I’ll have fun watching the film for a second and third time in the future; it’s definitely one to return to when I’m in the mood for adventure!

Jungle Cruise is available to stream now on Disney+ Premier Access (for a fee). Jungle Cruise is the copyright of Walt Disney Pictures and The Walt Disney Company. Some promotional images courtesy of The Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Ten of my favourite Disney World rides and attractions

It’s been a long time since I visited a Disney theme park, but with the re-opening of Disneyland in California recently hitting the headlines, I’ve been thinking about past visits. I’ve been very lucky to have visited three of the six Disney parks in my life, and though California’s Disneyland is the original and thus a classic, for my money you can’t beat Walt Disney World in Florida. There’s just so much more going on and so much more to do!

The last time I visited Walt Disney World was in 2006, and there have been many changes to the resort and its four constituent parks since then. This list won’t reflect those changes, so don’t expect to see me talk about Galaxy’s Edge and Rise of the Resistance. I would love to try that ride for myself one day, but my health prevents me from travelling (even if there weren’t a pandemic going on) so I doubt I’ll ever get to experience it for myself.

Cinderella’s Castle is the centrepiece and icon of Walt Disney World.

Luckily, though, I had several wonderful Disney experiences earlier in my life while I was able, and I’ve visited the parks both with family and with friends. Disney World – and the other parks – are presented as family-oriented attractions, but even as an adult you’ll find plenty going on and lots of things to have fun with.

So let’s celebrate all things Disney by picking out ten of my favourite rides and attractions! For the record, because I know people like to argue: I’m not saying these are objectively the best things to do at Disney World. These are simply ten rides and attractions that I enjoyed at the park on my earlier visits. If you have your own favourites and don’t like these ones, that’s okay! There’s a broad range of things to do at Disney World, with rides and attractions to cater to many different folks and the things they enjoy. We don’t all have to like the same things!

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at my list.

Number 1: The Tomorrowland Transit Authority/PeopleMover

The Tomorrowland Transit Authority/PeopleMover track.

I said at the beginning that this isn’t a top ten list of my absolute favourite rides. But if it were, the Tomorrowland Transit Authority would be my number one! It’s almost certainly my favourite ride at the Magic Kingdom and the whole of Disney World, which might come as a surprise considering it’s very tame. Unlike other slow rides at Disney, the Tomorrowland Transit Authority doesn’t really have its own theme, instead making a loop of Tomorrowland – one part of the Magic Kingdom – from about one storey up.

The Tomorrowland Transit Authority is fun and interesting, passing through several rides in Tomorrowland and a shop, giving you a birds-eye view over much of the future-themed area of the park. It’s gentle, so it’s perfect for young kids and others who don’t enjoy fast-moving rides, and unlike many of Disney’s other slow rides it isn’t in the dark, which again makes it great for kids who might not be so happy in the dark.

There usually isn’t a horribly long queue for the Tomorrowland Transit Authority (or at least, not as far as I remember from past visits) which, combined with its gentle nature, means it’s something relatively easy to do in between “bigger” attractions. Riding the Tomorrowland Transit Authority can nicely punctuate a visit to the Magic Kingdom, providing a way to slow down while still enjoying a ride. But it’s absolutely great fun on its own merit, and well worth a visit. If I ever go back to Walt Disney World, I’m making a beeline for the Tomorrowland Transit Authority as soon as I walk through the gate!

Number 2: El Rio del Tiempo (Mexico Pavilion at Epcot)

The entrance to El Rio del Tiempo.
Photo Credit: Disney Wiki

Sadly, El Rio del Tiempo has been re-themed since I last visited the parks, with the dark ride now taking on a theme based loosely on The Three Caballeros, a 1944 film featuring Disney mainstay Donald Duck. I believe the ride layout remains the same, though, despite the re-theming, so I imagine the gentle pace of the attraction has been retained.

Epcot’s World Showcase is an eclectic mix of different countries, with themed areas representing different parts of the world. There are points of interest and lots of places to eat, but what World Showcase doesn’t have in abundance are rides. The Mexico Pavilion contained my favourite, which is/was a dark ride set inside the attraction’s Mayan pyramid. The version of the ride I remember was a gentle boat ride, with no big drops or splashes, and after trailing around World Showcase in the Florida heat, it was great to take a break and sit down in the shade – and air conditioning!

A lot of theme parks (especially here in the UK) go all-in on thrill rides, trying to outdo each other with bigger and faster rollercoasters. Walt Disney World has always been great at having slower, gentler attractions that aren’t just rides for kids, and El Rio del Tiempo was a great example of an adult-oriented dark ride, one which paid homage to Mexico and Mexican history in a respectful way. I haven’t ridden the updated Donald Duck version, but I hope it managed to keep some of what made the original attraction so pleasurable.

Number 3: The Great Movie Ride

A recreation of Hollywood’s famous Chinese Theater served as the building for The Great Movie Ride.
Photo Credit: The Walt Disney Company

Another attraction that, sadly, can no longer be ridden, The Great Movie Ride was one of the original rides and showpieces of Disney’s MGM Studios/Hollywood Studios. It closed in 2017, being replaced by Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway. As with El Rio del Tiempo above, this reflects a move on Disney’s part to introduce its own characters and brands into all of the rides at Disney parks.

What I loved most about The Great Movie Ride was that a cast member (i.e. a real person) was present throughout, serving as a guide as the ride took you through clever recreations of scenes from famous films like Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and even Alien. There was an incredible diversity of films on display, and having a live performer along with the wonderful animatronics brought the world of Hollywood to life in a way I’d never really experienced before.

The Great Movie Ride was a love letter not just to the “Golden Age” of Hollywood, but to cinema in general. The queue area contained actual props from more than a dozen films – including the famous ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz and a dress worn by Kate Winslet in Titanic. While it makes sense in some ways for Disney to want to stick to its own brands, I think something significant was lost with the closure of The Great Movie Ride that took away from Hollywood Studios’ premise as a park.

Number 4: Star Tours

The StarSpeeder 3000!
Photo Credit: Disney Wiki

Galaxy’s Edge was not the first Star Wars-themed attraction at Disney World. Not by a long shot! Star Tours opened in 1989, and is still open today – albeit having been given a makeover! Unlike most attractions at Disney World, Star Tours is a simulator, meaning that it stays in one place and doesn’t follow a track.

I can still remember the thrill of boarding Star Tours in the early 1990s, not too long after having seen the Star Wars trilogy for the first time. Actually boarding a starship, complete with a droid pilot, and going on my own Star Wars adventure was a geeky kid’s absolute dream, and the sense of wonder I had as the doors to the simulator opened that first time is a memory that has stuck with me for decades.

The simulator itself was clever, and the ride managed to really give you the sensation of being a spaceship passenger, lurching from side to side and up and down as the ship tried to escape Imperial attacks! The “story” of the ride was, of course, a bit silly, but the experience of being part of Star Wars – even just for a few minutes – is something I’ve never forgotten. I haven’t been able to ride the updated version of Star Tours, but I’m sure it’s just as much fun, and that there are young Star Wars fans today about to have that same kind of experience!

Number 5: Pirates of the Caribbean

Pirates of the Caribbean exterior (at Disneyland Paris).
Photo Credit: Crazy Uncle Dennis

Pirates of the Caribbean was a ride long before anyone conceived of Jack Sparrow or the film franchise! And it’s a fun pirate-themed boat ride perfect for Adventureland. It wasn’t the first ride to be given the feature film treatment – that dubious honour goes to Hollywood Studios’ Tower of Terror, which saw a truly mediocre adaptation in 1997 – but it’s not unfair to say it’s been the most successful to date.

The ride itself – at least the classic version, prior to being updated with characters from the films – didn’t have a strong story, instead comprising little more than a set of pirate-themed scenes loosely bound together. Thus there wasn’t much to “adapt” to bring it to screen, just a theme and a song.

Though the ride has now been updated to reflect the popularity of the films, which makes sense, the original version was plenty of fun. The ride is a step in between something like El Rio del Tiempo and more thrilling, faster-paced rides, containing several short drops and faster sections rather than simply being a slow boat tour in the dark. Pirates of the Caribbean is a Disney classic, and one that nobody should miss when visiting!

Number 6: The Monorail

A Walt Disney World Monorail train.

Though you aren’t technically supposed to… this is the only ride on this list you can ride for free! Because the Monorail runs outside of Disney World itself, connecting the theme parks to several resort hotels and the main entrance, it’s possible to hop aboard even if you don’t have a ticket for the theme park – or at least, it used to be!

The Monorail is a lot of fun to ride, and offers great views of both the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. As a kid, I was seriously impressed with the way the Monorail glides through the inside of the Contemporary Resort – one of the hotels near the Magic Kingdom. The idea of a train going inside of a hotel blew my mind!

It’s designed to be a practical method of transportation, providing guests with an easy connection between their hotels or the car park and the theme parks. But the Monorail is so lovingly designed and well maintained that it’s a fun ride in itself. It also bookends a day at the parks – and even a whole Disney trip – perfectly, by beginning and ending with a ride.

Number 7: Spaceship Earth

Spaceship Earth is symbolic of Epcot.

Epcot’s talisman is a perfect representation of the concept behind the Epcot theme park. It’s a dark ride that goes through a summarised version of history, specifically the history of communication, with great animatronics and excellent narration. Epcot was originally intended as a park with a greater emphasis on imagination and education, showing off a particular vision for a possible future. Spaceship Earth is one of the few remaining elements of that original vision, with others having been closed or Disney-fied.

Spaceship Earth is the first thing you seen upon entering Epcot, and the huge geodesic sphere can be seen from all over the park. Its futuristic design still looks great as the park approaches its fortieth anniversary, and it’s become absolutely iconic. I hope that a planned renovation of the ride, which was due to start last year before the pandemic delayed things, doesn’t take away its educational charm.

Because Spaceship Earth is the first attraction inside the gate, it’s easy to make it your first port of call in Epcot. In my recollection, the queue wasn’t especially long on any of the occasions I wanted to ride, and inside a combination of moving walkways and continuously-moving ride vehicles seem to provide a smooth experience. The final part of the ride, which takes you through a field of stars “into the future” always feels moving and beautiful, and the ride ends on a very optimistic and hopeful note.

Number 8: Kilimanjaro Safaris

The sign welcoming guests to Kilimanjaro Safaris.

In 1998 my family and I were fortunate to be among the first guests ever welcomed into Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The new theme park was fantastic, and coming a few short years after The Lion King had been in cinemas, it was wonderful to see Disney really embracing the animal theme. Kilimanjaro Safaris is, as you might expect from the name, a safari ride.

Growing up, my family visited South Africa on a few occasions to visit an aunt who had moved there, and I lived in South Africa for a time shortly after graduating from university, so I’ve been lucky to have been on a real safari on a number of occasions. And I have to say, Kilimanjaro Safaris compares positively to the real thing! Because the ride is relatively compact, it’s possible to see many different animals – real animals, not animatronics – during the course of your expedition, which is fantastic.

There is a story to the ride, and like The Great Movie Ride above, Kilimanjaro Safaris has a cast member driving the ride vehicle to serve as your guide, adding a whole extra level of immersion. The animals at Animal Kingdom are well cared-for, and while it is still a “zoo” of sorts, knowing that the animals have space to roam and aren’t confined to small cages is nice to know. Getting up close and personal with some of these wild animals might otherwise be impossible, so Kilimanjaro Safaris offers a unique experience that really can’t be found elsewhere.

Number 9: Splash Mountain

Splash Mountain looms large over Frontierland!

After putting so many slower rides on the list, I suppose we need at least one “thrill ride” before we wrap things up! Splash Mountain is a log flume with a slow and tense build-up to a long drop, and it’s very easy to get absolutely soaked while riding! The ride is being re-themed at some point in the near future, following criticism of its present theme, which includes elements from the controversial film Song of the South. The new theme will draw on The Princess and the Frog, and based on concept art looks fantastic.

Splash Mountain slowly builds up a sense of tension. A couple of smaller drops get you riled up for the big one, and the slightly creepy vibe present in some of the animatronic scenes really ramps things up as you… go up the ramp! By the time the big drop is imminent, the ride has done its job of building anticipation!

I’ve always enjoyed Splash Mountain, and though I don’t expect to be able to see the re-themed version any time soon, it sounds like it’s in good hands. It’s one of the main attractions in Frontierland, and one of the “three mountains of the Magic Kingdom” along with Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain. Doing all three in a day makes for an amazing and thrilling time!

Number 10: Peter Pan’s Flight

Entry to Peter Pan’s Flight.
Photo Credit: Disney Wiki

Peter Pan’s Flight is a dark ride that vaguely follows the story of the 1953 film, taking you on a journey to Neverland with Peter and the Darlings. The gentle ride is great for young kids, and the adventure of following Peter Pan as he flies above London and battles Captain Hook is rendered beautifully with Disney’s animatronics.

Clever use of forced perspective really does give you the sensation of flight – being high above London and Neverland, looking down. It’s a very well-designed ride to get that sense of scale, and I’ve always appreciated that about Peter Pan’s Flight. Most of the characters from the film are present, including Tinker Bell and Captain Hook, and it’s just a cute, fun ride.

Given the recent controversy surrounding the way Native Americans were depicted, and Peter Pan’s restricted access on Disney+ that has resulted, I wouldn’t be surprised if Peter Pan’s Flight is reworked or even closed and entirely re-themed at some point in the near future. So this might be one to ride while you can!

Bonus: Fireworks displays

Fireworks in the Magic Kingdom.

Few places in the world do fireworks displays as well as Walt Disney World. Even though I’m not the world’s biggest fan of fireworks, which I feel can be a tad boring, the displays Disney World puts on at the Magic Kingdom and Epcot in particular are absolutely fantastic, and well worth sticking around for after dark.

Seeing the fireworks pop over Cinderella’s Castle, while also watching performers in costume as Mickey, Minnie, the Princesses, and other Disney favourites is one of the must-do experiences while in Disney World, especially if you’re visiting with kids. Not only is it a quintessential Disney World experience in itself, it’s also one of the best fireworks shows you’re ever likely to see!

Most places around the world are only treated to fireworks once or twice a year, so seeing a live display – especially a professional one on a large scale – does still present a sense of wonder and excitement, even to an old cynic like me! It’s a great way to end a day at the parks.

So that’s it. Ten of my favourite attractions at Walt Disney World.

No Rise of the Resistance for me… yet!

Did your favourite(s) make the list? If not, I hope you’ll stay tuned. This is a subject I’m sure I’ll revisit at some point in future, as there are at least ten more rides and attractions I can think of that didn’t make this first list! Disney World really has something for everyone, in my opinion. Whether you want the thrill of a fast rollercoaster, an immersive story-based ride, something gentle to do with young kids, or a show to sit down and watch, there’s so much going on that kids and adults of all ages should be able to find something to enjoy. I greatly enjoyed my visits to the park, and I’m glad to have been able to attend while I was capable of doing so.

The great thing about Walt Disney World is – as Walt Disney himself said – that the parks are “never finished.” There will always be changes, additions, and updates to keep things fresh and interesting, and while the trend in recent years has been for including more of Disney’s own characters and intellectual properties, that may not always be the case, and we could see more changes in future that bring back ideas like The Great Movie Ride or Epcot’s Innoventions.

Regardless, I hope this list was a bit of fun, and maybe a trip down memory lane for those of you who, like me, haven’t been able to visit the parks in a number of years.

All rides and attractions listed above are the copyright of and owned by Disney Parks and/or The Walt Disney Company. Some images courtesy of the Disney Wiki and Unsplash. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Raya and the Last Dragon – a review

The first part of this review contains no major spoilers for Raya and the Last Dragon. The second part does, however, and the end of the spoiler-free section is clearly marked.

Raya and the Last Dragon is an expensive film right now, available only via Disney’s “premiere access” feature on Disney+ for £20 in the UK or $30 in the United States. My review of the film has to be seen through that lens, because it’s not simply a title you can watch as part of your regular Disney+ subscription – though it will surely become available on Disney+ in the coming months. If Raya and the Last Dragon follows the same path as last year’s Mulan, it may be available to stream as part of Disney+ in the summer.

So the big question is this: can I recommend it for £20? Or is Raya and the Last Dragon a title that you’re better off waiting for?

I’m kind of an impatient person! And because Raya and the Last Dragon was one of the titles I was most looking forward to this year, for me it was unquestionably worth it. Raya and the Last Dragon is a great animated film that easily hits the highs of other recent Disney projects. I don’t mind paying a little extra for that under the circumstances – it’s about the price of two or three cinema tickets, so if you consider it from that point of view, it doesn’t seem too bad.

But there’s no getting away from this price discussion, and I want to briefly add my two cents. On the one hand, it can seem unreasonable for Disney to insist on an additional £20 on top of the monthly fee for Disney+. If it were an either/or case it would perhaps sit better with folks, but being asked to either pay £20 on top of your £8 a month, or to have to sign up at £8 on top of the £20 to see Raya and the Last Dragon certainly feels anti-consumer, and I get why folks feel that way.

Raya and the Last Dragon was originally supposed to get a theatrical release.

I’m sick to the back teeth of companies using the pandemic as an excuse for everything, and there’s no denying that Disney could simply have waited and released Raya and the Last Dragon in cinemas either later this year or next year if needs be. That’s the approach taken by Eon and MGM for the upcoming James Bond film No Time To Die, which has been delayed for well over a year. However, despite all of that, I like this method of distribution, and I think we’re seeing the beginnings of a shift away from theatrical releases in favour of streaming.

My health and disability means that I can no longer go to the cinema, so from my selfish perspective I love the idea of bringing more titles straight to streaming platforms, and on an occasional basis for a big release that I’m very keen to see, paying a little extra to watch it is no big deal. As television screens get better (and bigger) the so-called “cinema experience” offers less and less value anyway, and being able to watch a film on one’s own schedule, with the ability to pause, rewind, take breaks, etc. is so much nicer than going to the cinema in many ways. So in my opinion, bringing Raya and the Last Dragon to Disney+ for a fee is acceptable. Would I have preferred it to be included in the price? Of course. But these projects are hugely expensive, and recouping some of that money is going to be necessary for Disney, so I understand why they’ve done it this way. It feels like a compromise – not one that everyone will love, but one I find acceptable.

Young Raya during the film’s opening moments.

Before we get into the main section of the review, here are my spoiler-free thoughts.

I would describe the animation as competent. Nothing blew me away with how amazingly detailed it was – like the snow in Frozen or the oceans in Moana did – but there was nothing wrong with it and it was in line with other modern Disney films from the last decade or so. Considering a significant portion of the work on Raya and the Last Dragon was done remotely, that’s pretty good in my opinion.

The story was surprisingly heavy and emotional for a kids’ film, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. In the first few minutes it was perhaps a little fast-paced for my liking, dropping quite a few characters, locations, and themes all at once. But after that fast beginning it settled in, and followed Raya on her quest at a reasonable pace that wasn’t overwhelming. There were light-hearted and comedic moments, plenty of different environments for Raya and her friends to explore that were all based on different parts of southeast Asia, and the vocal performances were outstanding. Aside from the credits there weren’t any musical numbers, and that was something I wasn’t expecting. The score was great, and had an Asian-inspired theme to it, but after the likes of Moana and Frozen in recent years saw huge success with their songs, I was expecting at least a couple.

So that’s my non-spoiler summary.

This is the end of the spoiler-free section of the review. Expect spoilers from here on out!

Raya and the Last Dragon began with an immediate dump of exposition, explaining the backstory of the broken land of Kumandra – based loosely on southeast Asia. As indicated above, this opening section of the film was quite fast-paced, almost rushed, and introduced characters, themes, magic, locations, and backstory all at once. As I sat through those opening minutes I was hoping that the rest of the film would slow down, and luckily it did after a few minutes. That makes the opening, unfortunately, the weakest part of the film overall.

Raya and the Last Dragon follows the titular Raya as she seeks to save the fractured world of Kumandra, whose people have split up into five competing, squabbling, and warring lands in the aftermath of the disappearance of the dragons. But saving the world is just a side-quest for Raya, whose real objective for much of the film is to save her “ba” – her father, and the chief of her people. Yes, that makes Raya a Disney Princess!

Chief Benja, Raya’s father.

The story takes Raya to all five of the different lands, and each was based on a different area of southeast Asia. We spent just enough time in each land to take in the setting, but I think that taking a few minutes more to really get a feel for each – or perhaps the film including one fewer land – might’ve improved things. This is really the only point of criticism, because each of the lands was unique and richly detailed. At first I wasn’t sold on using English names for these places: Fang, Heart, Spine, Tail, and Talon. However, the metaphor made the ultimate payoff to the film’s story more easily understood, especially for younger viewers. The point of these names was to hammer home, at every opportunity, that the people of Kumandra were artificially divided; that the resolution to their problems would be in learning to trust one another and come together. Like the parts of an animal can’t function independently, neither can the peoples of Kumandra. Each land, represented by a piece of the dragon, brings something that the others lack, and working together is the only way.

This theme carried over into the film’s climactic final battle, as each of the friends Raya had made along the way – each from a different land – stood together and used the last of the dragon gem’s magic to help the people of Fang. This metaphor was certainly omnipresent, but didn’t feel laboured. The film knew, from the very beginning when Chief Benja introduced us to the idea of reunifying the fractured land, that this was the direction of the story. The names of the lands fed into that, as did the way Raya assembled her motley crew from different places.

Raya’s friends work together to help the people of Fang.

At time of writing, there’s a renewed focus on anti-Asian hate and hate crimes in the United States. I’m not an American, but I’d like to offer my perspective on how a film like Raya and the Last Dragon fits at this moment. We often hear criticism of Disney for taking legends and stories and twisting them, “Disney-fying” them to sanitise them for a western audience. And you know what? Raya and the Last Dragon, just like other Disney films based on folklore and legend, is Disney-fied. But there’s incredible value in representation, even in this simplified style, and with Disney’s unique reach that extends across borders, cultures, and ages, Raya and the Last Dragon offers representation to an under-represented group of people in cinema, animation, and the cultural mainstream.

We could devote an entire essay to debunking the argument that “representation and diversity for their own sakes are negative things,” but in the context of this film, coming at this particular moment, let me just say that positive representation is important. It’s important that people of all backgrounds feel included, and being depicted positively in mainstream entertainment – particularly in something as significant as a Disney animated film – is an historic moment. Raya and the Last Dragon draws on the mythology and folklore of southeast Asia in the same way as Moana drew on Polynesian legend, and it’s a net positive for people of Asian heritage to see such representation.

Raya and the Last Dragon presents a positive depiction of Asia and Asian people at an important moment.

Kelly Marie Tran is also uniquely positioned at this moment. Tran suffered horrible racist and sexist abuse online in late 2017 through 2018, and I’m so pleased to see her back in such an inspiring role. Raya and the Last Dragon is a story about bringing people together, learning to trust and overcome hatred, and as someone who has, sadly, experienced hatred firsthand, there’s something even more powerful in knowing who it is bringing Raya to life through an outstanding voice performance.

I don’t like to get “political,” but the release of Raya and the Last Dragon happened to coincide with a significant moment for people of Asian heritage in the United States, and I felt it important to at least acknowledge that.

Kelly Marie Tran voices the character of Raya.
Picture Credit: Jimmy Kimmel Live via YouTube.

In the west, we usually associate dragons with fire. Fire-breathing dragons are both a part of European folklore and have gone on to become a trope in fantasy fiction, so it was very interesting – and more than a little unusual – to see a water dragon as the main focus in a dragon-themed film. This is, of course, a reflection of the film’s Asian-inspired story, as was the design of Sisu herself.

Continuing the theme of breaking with common western depictions of dragons, Sisu is presented in an Asian style – a long body, no wings, and covered in fur. Sisu’s design is a Disney take on that concept, blunting its sharp edges and making it child-friendly. And it worked. I daresay Sisu toys and teddies will become a major part of Disney’s merchandise this year and beyond!

Sisu had a great design, inspired by Asian folklore but with a Disney twist.

The other character with a cute design was Tuk Tuk, and right from the opening moments of the film it was clear he’d been designed to be the cute animal sidekick that so many Disney protagonists have. Tuk Tuk worked best in the film’s prologue, after which he’d grown large and basically served as a form of transportation for Raya and Sisu, though the design remained largely the same.

With Tuk Tuk I think we can point to one of the few examples of Raya and the Last Dragon stumbling, at least somewhat. Aside from having a cute (and merchandisable) design, Tuk Tuk was clearly set up for some light-heartedness; some comic relief. Yet the introduction of Noi (the baby) and her three monkeys largely switches the comic relief focus away from him. It’s not a case of “too many characters,” but rather that the film didn’t really know what to do with two sets of comic relief characters. There was less for Tuk Tuk to do as a result.

Raya and Tuk Tuk near the beginning of the film.

The only other point of criticism I have comes at one of the film’s climactic moments. Raya and her friend-turned-nemesis Namaari are involved in a standoff. Namaari planned to take Sisu and the dragon gem pieces back to Fang on her mother’s orders, and Raya drew her sword to stop her. As Namaari points her crossbow at Sisu, Sisu asks Raya to trust that she knows what she’s doing – but Raya doesn’t, and the result is that Namaari’s crossbow fires, killing Sisu.

This moment was meant to show that Raya is the one who bears most responsibility for Sisu’s death; that if she had trusted Sisu, as Sisu asked her to, Namaari was about to stand down. But it simply wasn’t clear that that was the case, and it would be easy for a casual viewer – or a child, and this is a children’s film, after all – to simply see this moment as Namaari shooting Sisu.

Who was really responsible for pulling the trigger?

For such an important moment, I think it needed to be clearer that Raya is the one to blame. This is her character arc across the film’s final act: learning to trust, and being willing to make the first step to establish trust. If we as the audience see this moment as the culmination of Raya’s failings – an unwillingness to trust either Sisu or Namaari – then the rest of her actions and her arc make sense. If we miss that crucial context and simply see this moment as Namaari the betrayer shooting Sisu, what Raya does later on – giving up her pieces of the dragon gem to signify her willingness to trust – doesn’t make as much sense in context.

Namaari’s words to Raya during their epic final fight also ring hollow when the film is seen in this way. Instead of a heartbroken Namaari laying a harsh truth on Raya, it could be interpreted as another attempt by a liar and trickster to get under Raya’s skin. The moment with the crossbow was set up perfectly, but it was too easy to miss that it was Raya, not Namaari, who was really to blame for what happened, and as the rest of the plot turned on this moment I think that should have been much clearer.

Raya chose to trust Namaari at the film’s climax.

We could also talk about how easy it seems to be to slay a dragon in this film’s lore! It seems like an unimportant point, and perhaps I’m the only one who cares or feels this way, but the way the film treated dragons across the first hour or more made it seem as though they’re magical, almost god-like creatures. The way the film’s human characters worship Sisu – and the other dragons – represents this well. Yet all it took to kill Sisu was a single crossbow shot, and I guess what I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t seem to gel. On the one hand we have the film establishing dragons as magical creatures that provided for humans, bringing water and literally giving life to the world, being worshipped and deified centuries after the last of them were wiped out. Yet on the other hand, they’re no different from any other animal and a single crossbow bolt can kill them.

Perhaps this is my western perspective, thinking about dragons not in the context of Asia but in the context of JRR Tolkien and other works of high fantasy. In western dragon lore going all the way back to the legends of Saint George and King Arthur, slaying a dragon is considered an incredibly difficult task worthy of song and celebration. In the world of Raya and the Last Dragon it seems to be something any competent soldier could do. Who knows, maybe that’s why the other dragons went extinct!

Namaari the dragon-slayer!

Raya and the Last Dragon features a cast whose major characters are all female, with male characters in secondary supporting roles. This is something new to Disney, as even past female-led films like Moana, Frozen, or Mulan have included major male characters. The creative choice to have both the main hero and villain both be female actually works really well, and Raya manages to have a closer relationship with Namaari as a result.

Namaari being a redeemable villain – and the film essentially having no overall “big bad” who has to be killed to be stopped – was also a great choice, one that fit perfectly with the theme of overcoming hate and coming together. The whole story of Raya and the Last Dragon was about learning to trust one another, setting aside differences in order to work together for the common good. This theme would have been completely undermined if the final act required Raya to kill Namaari or even her mother, so making both characters redeemable was essential to the story.

Namaari needed to be a redeemable villain for the story to work as intended.

The real villains of the piece were the non-human Druun, depicted as a non-sentient force of nature rather than a character or faction. The design of the Druun managed to strike a balance between being intimidating but not scary and offputting for young children, and I would think that all but the most sensitive children would be able to watch Raya and the Last Dragon without feeling frightened by these crackling clouds of dark purple energy.

More could have been made of the Druun’s relationship with humans. At one point it was suggested by Sisu that the Druun are an embodiment of the arguments and lack of trust between humans, yet this wasn’t really developed further. It’s not clear whether humans directly caused the Druun to appear, whether they came from someplace else to feed on this mistrust and hatred, or what their precise origins are. If the world of 500+ years ago was populated by humans and dragons and was united, with no mistrust and no hatred, how the Druun even arrived in Kumandra is not clear. Perhaps that’s something a future title will explore in more detail, because I think it’s potentially interesting to say that humanity is responsible for giving strength to this powerful foe.

The Druun were the main adversary for Raya and her friends to overcome.

So I think that’s about all I have to say. Raya and the Last Dragon was a thoroughly enjoyable film and a worthy successor to the likes of Frozen and Moana. Disney has been on a roll for almost a decade now, since the release of Frozen in 2013, and the hits keep coming. In the very short term I doubt that Raya and the Last Dragon will catch fire in the way Frozen did, largely because of the cost of accessing it on Disney+ via the “premiere access” feature. However, once the film becomes generally available that should change. In a few months’ time, when it arrives for all Disney+ subscribers, it should see a significant boost.

Unlike Frozen and Moana, the choice not to include musical numbers means that there can’t be a breakout song. Let It Go and, to a lesser extent, You’re Welcome and Shiny went on to not only define the films in which they featured, but arguably bring in more viewers. By “going viral” in a sense, the songs drew more attention to their respective films, and this is something Raya and the Last Dragon won’t have.

The main characters at the end of the film.

I had a great time with Raya and the Last Dragon. I can’t tell you whether you’ll get £20 or $30 worth of entertainment and enjoyment from the film, because such things depend on your budget and your perception of value. But this time, as a one-off and as something I won’t repeat for the rest of the year, I didn’t mind spending the extra money. I didn’t spend money on last year’s Mulan remake, and having seen the film subsequently I think that was the right call. But this time, for the latest Disney animated film, I think it was worth it. Raya and the Last Dragon was funny, emotional, and clever, and told a story about people coming together that is timeless. Its Asian roots shone through, and though some will surely argue that it was a dumbed-down version of Asian traditions, that’s Disney’s trademark style.

If you enjoyed previous Disney animated films, especially recent ones, I daresay you’ll have a good time with Raya and the Last Dragon.

Raya and the Last Dragon is available to stream now on Disney+ via the “premiere access” feature for an additional fee. Raya and the Last Dragon is the copyright of Disney Animation Studios and the Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

A new Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic game rumoured to be in development

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II.

I don’t usually cover rumours here on the website. There are always unsubstantiated rumours flying around every corner of the entertainment industry, and many are either completely wrong or entirely made-up. Sometimes covering a rumour and getting all worked up about it can make you look rather foolish! But the rumour of a new Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic game feels like it has some weight to it, with multiple news outlets all picking it up.

I adored Knights of the Old Republic and its sequel. The two games were released in 2003 and 2004 for PC and Xbox, and if you’re unfamiliar with them they’re single-player role-playing games. At a time when the Star Wars franchise had released two pretty crap films, Knights of the Old Republic did a lot for rehabilitating the franchise’s reputation in my mind.

The two games told connected but separate stories focusing on two Jedi Knights – Revan and the Exile. They were set millennia before the main Star Wars films, and while they did borrow some aesthetic elements and themes from the films, they stood alone and apart from Star Wars’ cinematic output. At the time, with Star Wars being dragged through the mud by The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, that was precisely what I needed!

A screenshot from Knights of the Old Republic.

Bioware developed the first Knights of the Old Republic, and in many ways you can see the legacy of that game in their subsequent Mass Effect trilogy. In fact, the first time I sat down to play Mass Effect I considered it to be little more than a generic Star Wars knock-off! The sequel was developed by Obsidian Entertainment, and though it didn’t sell quite as well, and had some issues due to being rushed, it was still a fantastic title.

Both games told genuinely engaging stories with fleshed-out characters who felt real. They allowed a great degree of player choice – which at the time was still a novelty – and in addition to expanding the Star Wars map, visited just enough familiar locations and themes as to clearly be part of the franchise. If someone asked me to describe the “perfect Star Wars game,” it would be one of these two titles. The story, the freedom of choice, the excellent characters… they’re absolutely outstanding.

Other Star Wars games had previously allowed players to fight for the Empire or wield Sith weapons, so being a bad guy was nothing new. But Knights of the Old Republic and its sequel had a Light Side-Dark Side system which allowed players not only to choose which path to follow, but sometimes forced difficult decisions. Sometimes you’d encounter a puzzle or situation where the preferred option would result in pushing your character toward the Dark Side – and if you wanted to do a 100% Light Side playthrough that was difficult! Many smaller moments like this across both games made each playthrough unique.

A screenshot from Knights of the Old Republic II.

In the second game, the characters you would recruit for your party would differ not only by your Light or Dark inclination but also by gender. Male characters recruited one ally, females another. And the characters would have a big impact on your playthrough, with whole side-missions and cut-scenes featuring them. I must’ve played both games half a dozen times by now, even revisiting them as recently as 2017 when I bought them on Steam. Speaking of which: you can pick up both games for less than £15, and they’re usually discounted at sale time. Well worth a buy!

But we’re not here to advertise the first two games! Let’s consider what a third entry in the series could be.

There has already been a sequel of sorts: Star Wars: The Old Republic, a massively-multiplayer online game which is still running almost a decade after its initial release. I only played it for a short while – I don’t enjoy MMO titles as you may recall if you’re a regular around here – so I’m not 100% up to speed on everything that came out of The Old Republic. However, I do remember that it was set a few hundred years later, but managed to bring back some locations, themes, and story points from the original two titles.

Promo art for Knights of the Old Republic II.

A new entry in the series must surely be a single-player title. Though this is unconfirmed right now (as with everything else to do with this game) reusing the Knights of the Old Republic name for a multiplayer title or “live service” would not endear whichever company is developing it to Star Wars fans! And that’s another good point: no developer or publisher has been confirmed for this title yet.

Knights of the Old Republic II ended with some unanswered questions. Where had Revan gone? What would he find beyond the Galactic Rim? Would the Jedi Exile (i.e. the second game’s protagonist) be able to find him? These questions were never addressed, though they may have been touched on in The Old Republic, and thus could be answered by a new title.

One thing we’ve been assured of by this rumour is that the new Knights of the Old Republic will not be a remake or reimagining of either of the first games. That strongly suggests we’re looking at a sequel or prequel, and raises the prospect of bringing back some of the original characters. There could be copyright and/or licensing issues there, as studios have changed hands since the original games were made. But it seems at least possible that we could see the return of characters like Carth, Bastilla, and HK-47.

HK-47 in Knights of the Old Republic.

A direct sequel would certainly be popular with fans of the first two games. I’d be truly happy with that, and being able to pick up where the second game ended and carry on the story would be something absolutely wonderful. But would that have widespread appeal? How many gamers and Star Wars fans have played Knights of the Old Republic? PC or Xbox gamers in the early 2000s had access to these titles, and they were subsequently re-released on Steam and even iOS/Android. But there are undoubtedly a lot of gamers and fans who have never touched either title. The games are both approaching their 20th anniversaries, after all.

In that sense, perhaps a direct sequel is less likely, and what will follow will be a new game with new characters occupying a similar position in the galaxy and timeline. There may be references and even a degree of overlap, but not a straight continuation of Revan and the Exile’s stories. While that may disappoint some hardcore fans, it would arguably offer the broadest possible appeal.

It’s possible that this new game could connect in some way to the ongoing High Republic setting that Star Wars has been pushing recently. The High Republic era is set around 300 years before the main films, during the Republic but millennia after Knights of the Old Republic. Though cinematic Star Wars and Disney+ shows seem focused on prequels and spin-offs at the moment, the High Republic era is the setting for a number of apocryphal works like novels – and perhaps games. So while we’re calling this game Knights of the Old Republic, perhaps what it’ll actually be is Knights of the High Republic!

The High Republic is currently a focus for non-filmed Star Wars stories.

We’ll have to wait and see what a new Knights of the Old Republic will bring. It certainly seems as though the game is a long way off; with no official announcement to go on it could be a long while before we see any gameplay or even a trailer. However, the reinvigorated LucasFilm Games has certainly got off to a flying start in 2021. First came the announcement of an Indiana Jones game, then the new Ubisoft-published Star Wars game, and now this Knights of the Old Republic rumour. It seems that there will be plenty of new games on the horizon to get stuck into in the years ahead – and that’s wonderful.

The opportunity to revisit Knights of the Old Republic would be fantastic, and one of the things I enjoyed about Jedi: Fallen Order when I played it last year was that the game took me back to the planet of Kashyyyk – the homeworld of the Wookies that I first explored in Knights of the Old Republic. Whether it ultimately ends up being a true sequel or just a related story, I think there’s a lot of potential to have a truly amazing time back in the Star Wars galaxy.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was released in 2003 by Bioware and Electronic Arts. Knights of the Old Republic II was released in 2004 by Obsidian Entertainment – now owned by Microsoft. The Star Wars franchise – including all titles mentioned above – is the copyright of Disney and LucasFilm. Some screenshots and/or promo artwork courtesy of IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Electronic Arts seemingly loses its exclusive rights to Star Wars

For almost a decade following Disney’s acquisition of LucasFilm, only one company has been able to make Star Wars video games: Electronic Arts. A deal between Disney and EA gave them exclusive rights to the Star Wars license, and in the years since there have been four mainline Star Wars games, one Lego tie-in, one VR game, and a handful of mobile titles.

Both 2015’s Battlefront and of course 2017’s Battlefront II proved controversial and divisive; the former being disappointingly threadbare and the latter for its aggressive in-game monetisation. 2019 saw Jedi: Fallen Order, which I played through last year and was a fun title, and finally 2020 saw Star Wars: Squadrons, which I’ve also been enjoying. However, four games in nine years is perhaps less than many fans were expecting, especially with two of them having serious issues.

2015’s Battlefront was disappointing to many fans.

Calls for Electronic Arts to be “stripped” of the Star Wars license began after Battlefront’s release in 2015, but reached fever pitch in the weeks after Battlefront II’s launch. There was even a petition that hundreds of thousands of folks signed to ask Disney to revoke EA’s exclusive arrangement. That went nowhere, of course – fan petitions never achieve anything – but is indicative of the strong feelings over EA holding the rights.

The well-received Jedi: Fallen Order and Squadrons, combined with updates and patches which greatly improved Battlefront II, led to a cooling-off period, and as of early 2021 cries for the Disney-EA deal to be somehow undone had largely abated. It was a surprise, then, when LucasFilm announced a new Star Wars game… published not by EA but by Ubisoft!

“A surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one.”

Ubisoft has been honing its style of open-world games for years, with franchises like Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and Watch Dogs. It seems, from the teaser announcement made yesterday, that the new title will be an open-world game in a similar style, though no mention has yet been made whether it will be a single-player title like those in Ubisoft’s other open-world series, or a multiplayer “live service.” From my point of view I’m hoping for the former!

The game itself may be several years away, though Star Wars does have a recent track record of announcing games closer to release – that’s what happened with Squadrons last year, for example. No release window has been suggested as yet, and in fact we know precious little about the game itself beyond the publisher responsible.

Star Wars: Squadrons.

The upcoming game is just one part of this story, though. Most industry watchers agreed that Electronic Arts had a couple of years remaining on their deal with Disney, which raises the question of how and why this Ubisoft game has been able to enter development. It’s possible that the original contract was incorrectly reported, in which case it may simply have run its course. Or there may have been clauses regarding a number of titles, profit made, etc. that Electronic Arts didn’t live up to, allowing Disney to open up Star Wars to other companies. We don’t know the details – and unless someone senior breaks ranks to tell us, we likely never will!

Exclusivity arrangements can be difficult, and the Disney-EA deal over Star Wars is pretty much a textbook example of why. An exclusive contract like the one Disney offered EA effectively gives that company a monopoly over the license, and anyone who knows anything about basic economics can tell you why monopolies are a bad idea in practically every industry.

No, not that kind of Star Wars monopoly…

Having a monopoly meant there was no threat of competition, and this allowed EA to sit on the Star Wars license, cancelling titles that senior executives didn’t think would bring in “recurring user spending” and not feeling under any real pressure to develop or release anything. They could afford to be complacent because no one else was contractually allowed to even pitch a concept for a Star Wars title.

This attitude was changed when Electronic Arts saw the scale of the backlash to Battlefront II. The effects of that debacle are still being felt, and the game opened the eyes of parents, journalists, and even politicians to the shady practice of in-game gambling. But we’re off-topic. Too late, EA shifted focus away from cash-grabs, putting out the single-player Jedi: Fallen Order and following up with the space-sim Squadrons.

2017’s Battlefront II controversy may have triggered a change in thinking at EA – and at Disney.

Fans had been clamouring for a single-player story-driven Star Wars game for years, and while Battlefront II had a creditable single-player campaign, it wasn’t until Jedi: Fallen Order’s release in November 2019 that the single-player itch was truly scratched for most fans. By then the damage had been done for Electronic Arts, though, and their earlier complacency and attempts to swindle players with truly awful monetisation came back to bite them.

Though Electronic Arts will continue to work on Star Wars titles – most significantly the upcoming sequel to Jedi: Fallen Order – they will no longer be the only company Disney trusts with their incredibly expensive, incredibly lucrative license. The Ubisoft game may be the first of several upcoming Star Wars projects to be taken on by other companies, and hopefully what results will be a broader range of genres and styles of game.

Protagonist Cal Kestis in Jedi: Fallen Order.

In December 2020, LucasFilm announced half a dozen or so upcoming Star Wars films and television shows. There will be a lot of Star Wars content to come over the next few years at least, and while not all of the shows and films will be suitable for a video game adaptation, some may be. Disney and LucasFilm need to ensure they have access to the broadest possible range of talents in the video game industry if they hope to make the most of Star Wars.

I wasn’t especially excited by the film and television announcements made last month, to put it politely. Too many of them seem to be spin-offs, prequels, and deep dives into uninteresting side-characters rather than expanding Star Wars beyond its original incarnation. But even so, several of these projects seem ripe for video game tie-ins, and the end of the Skywalker Saga of films coupled with this expansion into new films and television projects may have been a contributing factor to Disney ending or not renewing its exclusive arrangement with EA.

Could a game based on the upcoming series Rangers of the New Republic be in the works?

For my two cents, I see the ending of this kind of exclusivity deal as a good thing. Monopolies are problematic for consumers for precisely the reasons the Disney-EA arrangement shows, and in future it could even be used as a case study for why these kinds of deals are a bad idea. Opening up Star Wars games to other companies allows for different points of view, competition, and hopefully what will result at the end of the day will be better games. Not necessarily more games. But better ones.

It is worth noting that Ubisoft is a company that hasn’t exactly escaped controversy recently. There have been serious problems within the company, including sexual harassment accusations against senior executives, and the accusation that the company itself tried to cover this up and cover for abusers. Company culture and institutional problems count against Ubisoft, and while Star Wars fans are rightly excited to learn that the franchise will be moving away from the EA exclusivity deal, it’s worth noting that Ubisoft has issues – and Disney should also be aware of this. The last thing the Star Wars brand needs right now is further controversy, yet a team-up with Ubisoft risks precisely that.

So that’s it. The end to Electronic Arts’ monopoly over the Star Wars license. Now if only someone would make a Star Trek video game…

The Star Wars franchise – including all titles mentioned above – is the copyright of Disney and LucasFilm. Star Wars: Battlefront, Star Wars: Battlefront II, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, and Star Wars: Squadrons were published by Electronic Arts. Some screenshots and promo art courtesy of IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Star Wars doubles down HARD

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the Star Wars franchise, including The Rise of Skywalker, The Mandalorian, and announcements for upcoming productions.

A few months ago I wrote an article titled “Star Wars needs to move on.” In that piece I looked at how the Star Wars franchise has only ever told one real story since it debuted in 1977. Prequels, sequels, and spin-offs all played into or expanded the only real story the franchise has ever told – that of Palpatine and minor characters like Anakin, Luke, and Rey who apparently don’t get to act of their own volition. I argued that, just like Star Trek had done with The Next Generation in 1987, Star Wars needed to put the Skywalker Saga behind it and genuinely move on, telling new stories with new characters.

The Mandalorian should have done this, but hasn’t. The inclusion of Baby Yoda, the Force, Boba Fett, and so many elements copied from the Original Trilogy overwhelmed that series and left me disappointed. I was desperately hoping that, after the reaction to The Rise of Skywalker, the team at Disney and Lucasfilm would think hard about what to do next.

The inclusion of Palpatine ruined The Rise of Skywalker.

Instead they’ve once again retreated back to the Original Trilogy, its spin-offs, and familiar characters. I would have hoped that the failure of Palpatine’s ham-fisted insertion into The Rise of Skywalker would have served as a warning, and that with the only story the franchise has ever told now at a seemingly-final end, the franchise could genuinely move on.

The Star Wars galaxy is up there with Tolkien’s Middle-earth as one of the finest fantasy worlds ever brought to life, yet the creative team at Disney and Lucasfilm seem intent on never exploring the wonderful sandbox they paid $4 billion for. They’re instead going to show us the same tiny sliver over and over again, bringing to life ever more ridiculous spin-offs looking at characters of decreasing importance. What a disappointment.

Star Wars: Andor is a spin-off from a spin-off and a prequel to a prequel.

Let’s look at these disappointing announcements. A Droid Story will focus on R2-D2 and C-3PO. The Bad Batch is a spin-off to The Clone Wars, which was itself a spin-off to Attack of the Clones. Andor is the previously-announced series based around Rogue One’s Cassian Andor. Lando is bringing back Donald Glover, who took on the role of the smuggler in Solo: A Star Wars Story. Rangers of the New Republic is a spin-off from The Mandalorian. Ahsoka is another spin-off from The Mandalorian. And in the previously-announced Obi-Wan Kenobi series, we have the return of Darth Vader.

The only announcements which seem to have any potential to tell new stories are 2023’s Rogue Squadron, a project called Acolyte about which no information was revealed, and an as-yet-untitled film helmed by Taika Waititi. Everything else falls into the same trap that the franchise has fallen into repeatedly since the prequel era: overtreading the same ground, forcing fans to look back, and overplaying the nostalgia card. There’s nothing bold or innovative in any of these announcements. They represent a backwards-looking cowardly corporation, desperate to rekindle the magic of the Original Trilogy but without any clue of how to do so.

Do we really need a Star Wars film about these two droids?

Spin-offs to spin-offs and the increasingly minor characters given starring roles is indicative of a franchise out of ideas. There’s absolutely no creativity in any of these projects that I can see. At a fundamental level they’re all trying to do the same thing – use nostalgia as a hook to bring fans back. If the Star Wars galaxy looked bland and uninteresting, perhaps that would be a necessity. But it’s always been presented as such a vast, interesting setting that it’s positively criminal to only ever look at a tiny portion of it. There are tens of thousands of years of galactic history to dive into, as well as an uncertain future in the years after the war against the First Order. Could we see some of that, maybe?

And how about new characters? The idea of a show based on the two droids is patently ridiculous, as are those focusing on minor characters from spin-off projects. Donald Glover’s portrayal of Lando was certainly one of the better elements of Solo, but does that mean he needs an entire project of his own? What will Disney and Lucasfilm do when these projects run their course? Are we going to see Star Wars: Snowtrooper #7 and Star Wars: That Two-Headed Podrace Announcer? At this rate that’s what’ll happen.

Is this guy getting his own spin-off too?

The sequel trilogy got two things wrong when considering the fundamentals of its storytelling. Firstly was the inexplicable decision to split up the writing, leaving it with no direction and no overarching story. But secondly, and perhaps most importantly, was the decision to re-tell the Original Trilogy, drag Star Wars full-circle back to where it started, and spend too much time looking backwards. The sequel trilogy was an opportunity for Star Wars to lay the groundwork for future success, but instead it’s dragged the franchise backwards.

The Original Trilogy is a weight around Star Wars’ neck. The popularity of those three films compared to any others means that cowards in a corporate boardroom can’t see beyond it. Instead of looking at ways to take Star Wars forward to new adventures, all they know how to do is look backwards at the only successful films the entire franchise has ever produced.

Star Wars is being run by a corporate boardroom that clearly has no idea what to do with the franchise.

The end of the Skywalker Saga saw Luke, Han, and Leia killed off. It saw the final demise of Palpatine. And despite the story of Star Wars having been dragged through the mud, there was an opportunity that hasn’t really existed before – an opportunity to move on to greener pastures. With the only story Star Wars has ever told brought to a conclusion, it was hardly an unrealistic expectation to think we might get something new.

I’m disappointed, as you can tell. The lack of vision and the lack of boldness on the part of Disney and Lucasfilm means that we’re once again looking at the same miniscule fraction of the Star Wars galaxy that we’ve always been shown. There’s nothing interesting about that, and even though I have no doubt that, on an individual level, many of these projects will be at least decent and watchable, I just feel Star Wars could do better. These shows and films are a franchise aiming for a grade C. They’re middle-of-the-road attempts to scrape by, coasting on past success.

If the franchise ever wants to do more than get a basic pass, they’ll have to be bold and aim higher. Do something genuinely different. Step out of the ever-growing shadow of the Original Trilogy and do what Star Trek has been doing for thirty years – tell new stories.

The Star Wars franchise, including all films, series, and upcoming projects listed above, is the copyright of Disney and Lucasfilm. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Star Wars needs to move on

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the Star Wars franchise, including casting information for The Mandalorian Season 2,The Rise of Skywalker, and other recent projects.

One of my favourite parts of the Star Wars franchise isn’t a film, it’s the two Knights of the Old Republic games from 2003-04. While I generally found the Expanded Universe – now re-branded as Star Wars Legends and no longer in production – to be unenjoyable, Knights of the Old Republic was an exception. It took a setting and a story that was thousands of years distant from the Original Trilogy, and while it’s certainly true that some elements were derivative, especially in the first game, as a whole it was something different that took Star Wars fans to different places and a different era. It expanded on the overall lore of Star Wars without overwriting anything, and it was a great look at the Star Wars galaxy away from Luke, Anakin, and Palpatine.

When it was announced in 2012 that Disney would be acquiring Lucasfilm I was excited. Ever since 1999, when Star Wars expanded to be more than just a trilogy of films, the vague prospect of a sequel to Return of the Jedi had been appealing to me. Learning what came next for Luke, Han, Leia, and others was something I was interested in, as I also was interested to learn what came next for the galaxy as a whole following the Emperor’s death. It’s easy to forget, but Return of the Jedi didn’t end with a full-scale victory for the Rebel Alliance. The Death Star was gone and the Emperor was dead, but practically the whole galaxy was still under Imperial control. I was fascinated to see how the Rebels turned victory in a battle into victory in the overall war.

The destruction of the Second Death Star. The sequel trilogy was supposed to tell us what became of the galaxy after this moment.

The Expanded Universe attempted to tell this story, but it was a convoluted, poor-quality tale hampered by having different writers with different ideas – seemingly Lucasfilm’s policy when it came to the Expanded Universe was that anyone could write anything. Many of these stories came across as fan-fiction, pitting a seemingly invincible Luke, Han, and Leia against all manner of obstacles. Over the years, the Expanded Universe grew to such an extent that it was convoluted and incredibly offputting for newcomers – several hundred books, several hundred more comics and graphic novels, over a hundred video and board games, two kids’ television shows, and myriad others, all of which required roadmaps, suggested reading lists, and of course a number of encyclopaedias and reference works to keep up with it all. All of this meant that the Expanded Universe was impossible to get to grips with without making it a full-time commitment. I was pleased when it was announced that Disney would be overwriting it.

By wiping the slate clean, not only would Disney not be constrained by some of the Expanded Universe’s poor storytelling, but the canon of Star Wars post-Return of the Jedi could be restarted, hopefully in a more concise way that would be easier to follow. That seemed to succeed at first, but now – a mere six years on from the cancellation of the old Expanded Universe – Star Wars is once again pretty convoluted with books, games, comics, and even a theme park attraction all officially canon. While I don’t want to spend too much time making a comparison with Star Trek, in that case the issue of canon has always been incredibly simple: television episodes and films are canon, everything else is not.

With so many books, comics, games, and other media, the old Expanded Universe was convoluted and offputting.

But we’re drifting off-topic. The Expanded Universe being dumped was a good thing, because I hoped what would replace it would be superior. And for the most part that’s been the case, though The Rise of Skywalker certainly dragged the overall story of the sequels down a long way.

Star Wars has a truly interesting setting: there’s a whole galaxy with countless worlds, trillions of inhabitants, and thousands of different species. But for the most part, the franchise has spent decades focusing on an absolutely minuscule fraction of this vast, potentially interesting setting it’s created.

The Expanded Universe spent a lot of time with Luke, Han, and Leia, as well as later with characters like Anakin, and by far the majority of its stories are set between The Phantom Menace and the couple of decades after Return of the Jedi. Where Knights of the Old Republic succeeded was in taking its audience away from that overtrodden ground and showing us a glimpse of the Star Wars galaxy without those familiar characters.

Knights of the Old Republic II was a great game that told a story far removed from Star Wars’ original trilogy.

The prequels dedicated three films to overexplaining the background of Darth Vader – a story I’d absolutely argue was unnecessary and didn’t really do anything to improve or inform the Original Trilogy in any substantial way. That was part of why I found those films so disappointing. While the third entry, Revenge of the Sith, was better than the first two, all three films didn’t really bring anything new or interesting to the table. As I sat down to watch The Force Awakens a decade later, I hoped that we’d start to see something different.

The five films made since Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012 have been a disappointment in that regard. We’ve had The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker, which essentially remade A New Hope and Return of the Jedi only worse, Solo: A Star Wars Story which made the same mistake of unnecessarily overexplaining Han Solo that the prequels did with Darth Vader, and Rogue One, which was a great standalone story but was a prequel feeding straight into the plot of A New Hope. The Last Jedi tried to take things in a different direction, but was still a story primarily about Luke – and is now effectively non-canon after being overwritten by its sequel.

The Last Jedi was the most recent Star Wars film to even try to do something differently – but was still constrained by being a sequel using familiar characters.

I know I said I wouldn’t make too many comparisons with Star Trek, but there’s one that’s too important not to mention. In 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered. And aside from a cameo appearance, that show basically did its own thing and didn’t worry about The Original Series. The Star Trek franchise thus established that it could be so much more than its original incarnation. Star Wars has never done that – in its cinematic canon it hasn’t even tried, despite existing for over forty years. Where Star Trek consists of three time periods, an alternate reality, and nine distinct sets of main characters, Star Wars has been unable to move beyond the story of its original trilogy. The prequels lent backstory to the originals. The sequels and spin-offs expanded that same story. Even The Mandalorian brought in themes, concepts, and characters that weren’t as far-removed from the original films as they should’ve been – a decision compounded by the silly decision to bring in Boba Fett in Season 2.

Star Was could be so much more than it is. But at every opportunity, decisions have been taken to narrow its focus and dive deeper into unimportant parts of its only actual story; after more than forty years, the Star Wars franchise has still only told one real story. The decision to shoehorn Palpatine into The Rise of Skywalker makes this infinitely worse, as apparently he’s been manipulating everything and everyone from behind the scenes for the entire saga of films. As I wrote once, this transforms the Skywalker Saga into what is really the “Palpatine Saga”, as he’s the only character who seems to act of his own volition. But this isn’t supposed to be (another) critique of that incredibly poor narrative decision!

The deus ex machina of Palpatine ruined The Rise of Skywalker… and really the entire sequel trilogy.

The decision to bring Palpatine back is indicative of a franchise that has no new ideas. It was categorically not “always the plan” to bring him back in the sequels, or this would have been established in The Force Awakens. Instead, Palpatine became a deus ex machina because Star Wars as a whole has been unable to move out of the shadow of its first three films. Those films could have laid the groundwork for an expanded franchise – as The Original Series did for Star Trek – but instead they’ve almost become a ball and chain; a weight around the neck of the franchise, keeping it locked in place and unable to move on.

It shouldn’t be because of a lack of ideas. The Star Wars galaxy is a massive sandbox for any writer or director to play in, with almost unlimited potential to tell genuinely new and interesting stories. Instead it’s a lack of vision and a lack of boldness on the part of a large corporation; Disney wants to play the nostalgia card over and over again, and because Star Wars had never previously tried to escape its Original Trilogy, doing so now seems – from a corporate point of view – too big of a risk. How else does one explain the decision to allow The Rise of Skywalker to overwrite The Last Jedi? Corporate-mandated cowardice, retreating to nostalgia and safe, comfortable ground. Trying something even slightly different requires a boldness that simply isn’t present in most boardrooms.

Star Wars is being run by a corporate boardroom unwilling to take risks or do things differently.

Two-thirds of the sequel trilogy re-told the original trilogy. The prequels were glorified backstory, and the two spin-off films were also prequels to the originals. Star Wars has only ever made three original films – everything else either overexplained that story or tried to re-tell it. The Star Wars “saga” is thus nothing more than one story. One main character – Palpatine – controls and manipulates it, and only a handful of characters get any significant screen time and development.

I wrote recently that the overall story of Star Wars has been dragged full-circle, with the questions fans had about the state of the galaxy and the Jedi Order after Return of the Jedi simply not being answered in any meaningful way. The galaxy is once again in a position where Palpatine is dead, there’s one remaining young Jedi, an autocratic state controls much of the galaxy but has suffered a major defeat, and the survivors will have to finish the war and try to rebuild. That’s where both Return of the Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker left things. Far from answering the questions posed by the original films, the sequels just asked the same questions again with a different coat of paint.

By re-telling the same story – albeit in a worse way – the sequel trilogy as a whole has entirely failed to accomplish anything.

The end of the sequel trilogy left the Star Wars galaxy in exactly the same state it was in almost forty years ago.

The announcement of The Mandalorian came with what I thought was an exciting premise: the adventures of a gunslinger far beyond the reach of the New Republic. Wow! Finally, something genuinely different in Star Wars. It didn’t last, of course, as the second episode of the show brought the Force back into things. While in some respects The Mandalorian tried to be different, in too many ways it was samey. The aesthetic, the reuse of elements from the original trilogy like Boba Fett’s armour, the Jawas and their Sandcrawler, and of course the return of the Force made what was already a boring show with episodes that were too short even less interesting. I found the whole experience a disappointment.

The two upcoming Disney+ shows – based around Obi-Wan Kenobi and Rogue One’s Cassian Andor – look set to repeat the same mistakes. Ewan McGregor’s portrayal of Kenobi was definitely one of the prequels’ better elements, but do we need yet another prequel? In-universe, Kenobi went into exile on Tatooine after the rise of the Empire. Anything he does in the show would either be constrained by taking place within a few miles of his desert hut or else feel awfully tacked-on. And the Cassian Andor show is a prequel to a prequel. Rogue One was a great film, but does it need its own prequel show?

Cassian Andor was a great character in his sole appearance. Not sure he needs a prequel series of his own, though.

Can’t the investment being made in these properties be reallocated to something genuinely different? There’s so much potential in the Star Wars galaxy, yet Disney and Lucasfilm seem intent on showing us the same tiny sliver over and over and over again. When people talk of franchise fatigue and the feeling that Disney is milking Star Wars dry it’s because of this! When every Star Wars project feels samey and repetitive, it’s much easier to get burnt out on the franchise.

There are some exceptions – I recently played through Jedi: Fallen Order, and despite that game using a familiar time period, it was a mostly-original story with only one returning character from the films playing a role. It was different enough to feel like a half-step away from what had come before.

Jedi: Fallen Order told a decent standalone Star Wars story.

For the franchise to survive long-term and remain viable, it needs to step away from the original trilogy for the first time. New films and shows, whenever they may come, should look at wholly new characters in a setting and even time period that’s distinct from what came before. There also needs to be a plan – the rudderless sequel trilogy can’t be repeated. Any new project needs to have someone at the helm to guide its story. Questions need to be asked at the beginning about where the characters are going and what the endgame of the story is, so that the franchise doesn’t just keep making the same mistakes.

Not every recent Star Trek project has been to everyone’s taste. But since the 2005 cancellation of Enterprise – and in some respects even before then – Star Trek hasn’t been afraid to try completely new things. Action films, a serialised drama show, and now an animated comedy have all joined the lineup. Some of these have brought in new fans, and at the very least, no one in 2020 can accuse Star Trek of being stale. Star Wars, in contrast, has absolutely become stale. The one story it’s been telling for forty years has finally ended, so now is the moment for Star Wars to properly move on.

The Star Wars franchise – including all films and other media mentioned above – is the copyright of Lucasfilm and Disney. Stock photos courtesy of Unsplash, Knights of the Old Republic II screenshot courtesy of the press kit on IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Marvel’s Avengers looks an awful lot like Battlefront II…

One of the things that seemed weird to me about Marvel’s Avengers – the new video game, not the film series – is that the game seems to be using a visual style very similar to the Marvel Cinematic Universe… but without any of the actors’ likenesses. I wondered why they hadn’t been able to negotiate with the various actors like Robert Downey Jr., Scarlet Johannson, etc to use their faces or even get them to provide their voices to the title. Given the popularity of the MCU, that struck me as odd. But perhaps now we know why – the game is going to be very controversial.

If I were an actor in the films or an agent/advocate for them, I’d take one look at Marvel’s Avengers and think to myself just how glad I am to be able to say I have nothing whatsoever to do with it. The controversy the game is drawing for its incredibly aggressive monetisation and microtransaction policies is going to be toxic – and any brand or individual associated with that should watch their backs.

Star Wars Battlefront II generated a lot of controversy in 2018 for its in-game monetisation, and while it’s up for debate whether Marvel’s Avengers will reach that level, it’s trending in a very similar direction. Every single aspect of the game seems designed to extract as much money from players as possible – in a game that charges £50/$60 to purchase in the first place – with a £66 deluxe edition, of course.

Battlefront II released to widespread controversy.

When the game was announced as one of these always-online, “multi-year experience” games, the writing was on the wall. In recent years we’ve seen such titles as Anthem and Fallout 76 try to go down that route, and practically no game which does so manages to avoid controversy. Even by the low standards of this type of game, though, Marvel’s Avengers is taking the piss.

One of the Marvel franchise’s most iconic characters – Spider-Man – is going to be a console exclusive on the PlayStation 4. There are tie-ins with all sorts of random companies, each providing in-game rewards for purchases or subscriptions. There’s an in-game currency which can be bought with real money. Each character – of which there are six at launch (or seven if you’re playing on PlayStation 4) will have their own paid “hero cards”, which seems like a necessary feature to get the most out of each character.

In short, if you can think of a crappy anti-consumer business model used by a recent video game, publisher Square Enix has thrown it into Marvel’s Avengers.

One of several in-game marketplaces ready to vacuum up players’ cash.

The £10 “hero cards” per character is perhaps the most egregious of all the monetisation tactics. It means that players who want to fully experience the game – a game that they have already paid full price for up-front – will need to continually shell out more and more money, perhaps even spending double the initial asking price. That’s not accounting for other cosmetic items, skins, costumes, etc. that are all going to be paid for. The only thing the game doesn’t seem to have is lootboxes – something they make a big fuss about as if expecting gamers to reward them for it.

I’m not a big fan of Marvel, or of comic books in general. But some games with a comic book setting can be decent, and if this were a single-player action title with a big budget behind it I might’ve been tempted to give it a try. Not like this, though. Not with the game being in such a state. People who had early access to play through the beta version have even been reporting back saying that underneath all the aggressive microtransactions, the game isn’t actually all that good.

Marvel’s Avengers may not be as exciting as this promo artwork suggests…

So a 6/10 title is going to cost easily upwards of £100 if you want to buy the deluxe edition and all of the battle passes and in-game currency and cosmetic extras… and you still can’t get iconic character Spider-Man unless you spend all that money on the PlayStation 4 version. I don’t know about you, but to me it’s beginning to sound like it might not be the best value proposition in the gaming world right now.

The Star Wars brand has been dragged through the mud in recent years – admittedly not just because of decisions in games. But the release of Battlefront II and the controversy and backlash it generated tarnished the overall brand to a degree, and I can’t help but feel Marvel is in serious danger of making a very similar mistake. The fact that both Star Wars and Marvel are owned by Disney is worth noting; clearly the company is fine with going all-in on these kind of aggressive money-making tactics.

If I were a Marvel fan, I would have been looking forward to the franchise’s biggest game in a long time. But I’d be looking at the underwhelming game drowning in microtransactions (if we can call £10 “micro”) and feeling sick to my stomach. This is barely even a game – it’s a shop, designed to rope players in and force them to spend more and more and more money. If the core game underneath was decent, perhaps players would be willing to do that. But if reports from those who played the beta are accurate, there isn’t even the kernel of a good game at the heart of this mess.

Ms. Marvel in a promo screenshot.

And perhaps that’s to be expected. The best games are passion projects – titles developed because the team behind them genuinely loved the idea and wanted to see it fully realised. Everything about Marvel’s Avengers feels corporate and soulless, like the game has been conceived in a boardroom full of men in suits who looked at the list of franchises they own then tasked some poor team of developers with making a money-printing machine. These are people who looked at the success of titles like Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto Online and – without understanding anything about them – said “make me one of those!”

The sad thing is that there are many comic book fans and fans of Marvel who would have loved the chance to work on a fun title and bring the superheroes to life for players. But it seems like none of them got a look-in, or if they did they saw this sad, corporate shell and walked away. The suits in charge don’t care, and what has been built is a game where the nicest thing anyone can say is that it looks pretty. Visually impressive, but mediocre and drowning in attempted monetisation.

Disney tried this a couple of years ago in partnership with Electronic Arts. The result? Star Wars Battlefront II, a game so controversial it literally got politicians involved and will probably end up getting in-game gambling banned in at least some areas of the world. It will be hard for Marvel’s Avengers to fail quite so spectacularly, but it seems like they’re willing to try.

Marvel’s Avengers is due for release at on the 4th of September on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, and Stadia. Marvel’s Avengers was primarily developed by Crystal Dynamics and published by Square Enix. The Marvel franchise is the copyright of the Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

A look at Project 4K77

A lot of Star Wars fans haven’t seen the original Star Wars. Oh sure, they’ve seen A New Hope, but not the original film as it appeared in 1977 and the years after. In the late ’90s and early 2000s the original film was edited – heavily, in some places – and given the “Special Edition” monicker. It’s this version of the film that’s been the only one available to watch on DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming platforms ever since. So as I said at the beginning – many Star Wars fans haven’t seen the original film.

Even I hadn’t until recently. I’d been lucky enough to see the pre-Special Edition cut on VHS in the early 1990s, but even that version of the film had at least one significant edit – the title. In 1977, Star Wars was just Star Wars. A New Hope was the revised subtitle given to the film after the release of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, which was also the time it was retroactively declared “Episode IV”. So even I hadn’t seen the original theatrical version!

In one of the most notorious changes made in the Special Edition of A New Hope, Greedo shoots at Han Solo in the Cantina.

The subtitle doesn’t really bother me. I tend to refer to the first film in the series as Star Wars anyway, unless discussing the wider franchise. Then it becomes necessary to differentiate the first film – just like how Star Trek can be called The Original Series. But what does bother me – at least a little – are many of the other edits and changes.

In a way, I can appreciate what George Lucas was trying to do. In 1977, a combination of budget and technical limitations meant that some of his ideas for how scenes could look had to be curtailed, and with the unlimited resources thrown his way in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he evidently felt he could bring the original films more in line with his vision by using CGI.

The opening crawl from the original theatrical version of Star Wars. Note the lack of a subtitle – the film was not called A New Hope in 1977.

The problem is, of course, that CGI in the late ’90s was pretty crap. Heck, CGI can be janky even today – just look at the catastrophic Cats film from last year for an example of that. The result of Lucas’ edits to Star Wars is that the film is, at best, a visually weird mix of poor-quality CGI and the original practical effects. At worst, the crappy CGI can be totally immersion-breaking.

There have been numerous other edits to Star Wars, including when it recently arrived on Disney+. Some fans noted that the currently-available version on both Blu-ray and streaming looks darker and washed-out, as if a filter has been applied.

CGI Stormtroopers, creatures, and ships in the Special Edition.

So what is Project 4K77? It’s a fan-made remaster of the original theatrical release of Star Wars – the 1977 version, digitally transcribed and available to watch in 4k resolution. None of the Special Edition features are included, and there are two versions – with and without digital noise reduction, which can help clean up the old film grain, but at the expense of not being as “pure”. The title is simply a reference to the fact that the finished version is in 4K resolution, and that the original Star Wars was released in 1977. Hence, Project 4K77.

It’s worth noting that the project is completely unofficial and unsupported by Lucasfilm or parent company Disney. The completed film exists in a legal grey area – it’s a copyrighted work, wholly owned by Disney and Lucasfilm, but the team behind Project 4K77 argue that the original version of the film has been abandoned by its parent company and thus is fair game. Big companies like Disney often jump on fan projects as they become aware of them; Project 4K77 has been out in the open since at least 2018, when the finished remaster of Star Wars was released, and in the two years since nothing bad seems to have happened and the website is still online. Perhaps Disney and Lucasfilm simply don’t care – I can’t imagine they’re unaware of the project after two years. But if you’re desperately worried about things like copyright, you should be aware of its status. The people behind the project also say that they expect everyone who downloads it to already own at least one copy of the film through official means.

The original version (top) and Special Edition revision (bottom). Note the difference in colour temperature and lighting for Obi-Wan and the two lightsabers in particular.

I have great admiration for anyone who takes on a big project and sees it to completion, but these fans have gone above and beyond. They’ve worked on this project basically for free in their spare time, and the result has been a complete restoration of the original film. Return of the Jedi has been remastered too, under the title Project 4K83, and The Empire Strikes Back is supposedly still being worked on. The expression “labour of love” can be thrown around very casually sometimes, but it absolutely fits here. There’s no other way to describe what these fans have accomplished.

Star Wars is in an unusual place as a piece of film history. It’s a classic film that spawned an entire franchise, but unlike many other classic works of cinema, the original film that accomplished so much has, in effect, been out of print for decades. When considering other comparable works, even within the sci-fi and fantasy genres, that hasn’t happened before. Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and even films like Flash Gordon can still be found and watched in their original forms. Star Wars can’t – or it couldn’t until recently.

This scene – featuring a crap-looking CGI Jabba the Hutt – wasn’t even included in the pre-Special Edition cuts of the film.

I don’t think it’s possible to understate the importance of what Project 4K77 has done. When future historians come to look back at late-20th Century cinema, there was a real risk that one of the most important works in the sci-fi/fantasy genres would only be available in a reworked, heavily-edited form. Thanks to this project, that’s no longer the case. The original film has been preserved in its original form, and the importance of that is profound.

While we may look at Project 4K77’s remastered Star Wars as an interesting curiosity, it’s so much more than that. And not only for Star Wars fans like myself who hasn’t seen the film in this form – but for countless current and future fans of sci-fi/fantasy and cinema in general. It’s a piece of history, and I’m all for the preservation of important historical documents and artefacts – by whatever means necessary!

Luke’s X-Wing in its original form – a physical model, not a CGI creation.

If you’re going to go looking for a copy, I daresay you’ll be able to find it through the usual methods for acquiring such content. But bear in mind the file size is particularly large – it hasn’t been compressed in any way. I watched it on my television – a 4K display, but just an LCD one, nothing special. On an OLED display it would look stunning, I’m sure – and even better if you have a proper home cinema setup with a 4K projector and screen!

The more copies of Project 4K77 that exist out there in the wild, the greater the chance it will survive long-term, which is important for the reasons discussed. But it’s something I feel every Star Wars fan needs to see at least once; this is where the franchise truly began. Everything that’s happened since in a galaxy far, far away is built on the shoulders of this film – and in particular, this version of the film. It’s a piece of cinematic history that George Lucas tried to bury. Fans decided not to let him, and Project 4K77 is the result.

The Star Wars franchise – including Star Wars and the rest of the original trilogy – remains the copyright of Lucasfilm and Disney. Project 4K77 is unofficial, and it’s your responsibility to stay on the right side of copyright law. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Is the decision to bring Mulan straight to Disney+ a good one?

I’ve made no secret here on the website that I consider Disney’s live-action remakes of some of its classics to be very much lesser versions of those films. That’s for a variety of reasons, and I’m sure is at least partially influenced by the nostalgic feelings I have for some titles. 1998’s Mulan is an interesting film in many ways, but it’s always felt like a second-tier member of the Disney Renaissance, not quite reaching the same heights as The Lion King, Aladdin, or even Pocahontas. So its remake, which had been scheduled to premiere earlier this year, is a project I’ve been anticipating with muted excitement at best.

That was before the coronavirus pandemic disrupted everything. After abortive attempts to release the film in cinemas in March, then July, then finally August, Disney decided to try something they haven’t done before: bring a major release directly to their streaming service, Disney+. But Mulan won’t arrive on Disney+ ready to watch like any other title, instead it’s going to be paywalled with customers being asked to stump up an extra $30 on top of their regular Disney+ subscription fee in order to access it when it releases next month.

Mulan (1998) is getting a live-action remake.

On a purely mathematical level, I can understand the charge. Films are expensive to make, and Disney wants to recoup as much of that money as possible. $30 is around the price you might pay for 3-4 cinema tickets, so if you think that it’s the same money as a family going to see the film at the cinema, Disney obviously feels that it’s a fair price. But of course watching a film on streaming isn’t the same as going to the cinema, and I have to confess I was taken aback by how steep the cost of seeing Mulan is. As a single person, $30 (or whatever its equivalent in GBP will be) is excessive for seeing one film! That’s the equivalent of more than four months’ subscription to the streaming platform, and I have no doubt many will be as put off as I was.

My big question is this: why can’t Disney just be patient? It isn’t just film releases that have been disrupted, film production has been massively affected too. Disney has already postponed the release dates of many other titles that are currently in production as a result of the pandemic, and surely Mulan could have taken any one of those release slots once the disruption finally ends. Sitting on the film costs Disney very little – releasing it too soon could backfire and cost them massively.

Liu Yifei in the 2020 remake of Mulan.

Ever since broadband internet made it possible to stream and download large files, piracy has been a problem for big entertainment companies. Streaming services like Disney+ are able to survive in part because most people like to follow the rules, but also at least in part because they make it easy and affordable to do so. Who would even notice £4.99 a month – that’s how much Disney+ costs in the UK. Hardly anyone would, of course, and that’s how the service survives. But a sudden turnaround to charge more than $30 for a single film and suddenly a lot of people will be looking for other options.

Piracy is incredibly easy. A simple online search leads to dozens of websites that allow users to stream up-to-date films, and within hours of a film or television series going live, it’s been recorded and reuploaded countless times. When Mulan releases behind a paywall, it will very quickly be uploaded to pirate websites where people will be able to watch it or download it for free.

No, not that kind of piracy…

While Mulan’s release on streaming will almost certainly be lacklustre, it could have the unintended side-effect of harming Disney+ as a brand. Disney+ already is worse than its competitors in that the most recent seasons of its television series aren’t uploaded until months or even years after they debut on television, but if the service gets a reputation for paywalling content, many people will wonder what the point of paying for it is and will unsubscribe. Partly that’s on principle, and partly it’s because the cost of accessing Mulan is incredibly high.

Disney has also harmed its relationship with cinemas and distributors. The cinema industry is suffering greatly from months of closure, and here in the UK, while cinemas have been allowed to reopen since early July, many haven’t. Regular readers will know that disability precludes me going to the cinema these days, but in the past when I was able to, I favoured an independently-owned cinema in a nearby town – one of the few left in the UK. Its fortunes hang in the balance right now, and one thing that could have helped is a big release like Mulan to tempt people back. By cutting cinemas out of the equation and going direct to streaming, Disney has upset the apple cart. Why should cinemas go out of their way to show other Disney films in future?

Cinema owners will protest this decision vehemently.

At least one cinema chain – Odeon, which is owned by AMC – has stated that they will no longer show any films by Universal Pictures as a result of that company making a similar decision. Universal chose to release Trolls World Tour digitally as a result of the pandemic, and AMC and Odeon reacted swiftly, banning Universal films in their cinemas, of which there are many in the UK; Odeon is a big chain. Disney could end up in a similar situation, and if several big chains were to band together, they could effectively prevent Disney films being released almost anywhere. Any company, even a giant like Disney, needs to tread very carefully.

Disney has chosen to prioritise making as much money as possible as soon as possible ahead of all other concerns. And with the company losing money – Disney lost $4.7 billion in just three months this year – perhaps the higher-ups decided they needed to do as much as possible to offset that. Indeed, the decision to reopen as many of the company’s theme parks as they’re allowed to is also part of that – the losses made by having the parks open are clearly less than the losses made by keeping them shut. Evidently Disney has made the calculation that the short-term harm of releasing Mulan digitally is less than the harm of sitting on it for an unknown length of time.

For those willing to pay, Mulan will be available next month on Disney+.

The coronavirus pandemic has been hard to predict, but many medical experts and analysts are anticipating a renewed increase in cases as we move into the autumn and winter here in the northern hemisphere. Disney may have interpreted such statements to mean that regional lockdowns may not be going away any time soon, and even if the rules are relaxed, the general nervousness of the public about the disease – and the looming recession it’s triggered – may put people off going to the cinema anyway. With the USA, which is Disney’s biggest market, being much more seriously affected than the rest of the world, even if everywhere else were to get back to some degree of normality, it may take a lot longer before American cinemas will all be able to reopen.

All of these issues and more have fed into the decision, and I can understand it on a corporate level. But I think one of the key problems is that many higher-ups don’t appreciate just how much they’re asking people to pay to see a single film in their living rooms – or even on a phone screen. $30 is a lot of money to a lot of people, and while it may not be to someone who’s making megabucks at the top of a huge company, out here in the real world it is. $30 could be the back-to-school supplies for a child, a big takeaway meal for a family, or as already mentioned, more than four months of Disney+. People could do a lot with that money, and while many are happy to pay extra for a treat like a visit to the cinema, far fewer will be willing to cough up cinema-ticket prices for a film they’re watching in their living room or on their phone. Disney+ has been inoffensively priced until now, and that has won it many supporters and subscribers. Mulan is not inoffensively priced. In fact it’s priced in such a way as to be downright offensive to many people.

Disney evidently sees this as the least-bad option right now.

Speaking purely anecdotally, I haven’t found anyone willing to pay for Mulan. One person I asked suggested that if it were a better film, they might be willing to consider it, but definitely not for a remake of a B-tier film like Mulan. That was the closest I got to a “yes” out of everyone I spoke to. While there will be a market for it, as some people will desperately want to see this reimagining and others will be pestered into it by their kids, it won’t be enough for the film to break even and I have no doubt Mulan will have a seriously disappointing launch.

But even a serious disappointment may be good enough for Disney as they look for ways to slow their financial haemorrhaging. Mulan will undeniably bring in more money for the company than the precisely $0 it would if it remained unreleased. As long as it covers the costs of streaming it worldwide – which, given Disney+ already exists, it almost certainly will – it may be seen as a success. At the very least it will be something Disney can show to investors and shareholders to demonstrate that they’re trying new and creative ways to get through what could be many more difficult months that lie ahead.

Mulan and Disney+ are the copyright of the Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Let’s Play Disneyland Adventures – Part 1

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Disneyland Adventures.

I miss Disneyland. It’s actually been well over a decade since I was last able to take a trip to any of Disney’s theme parks, and I miss the rides, the food… even the queues! If you’re like me and you’re missing spending time at Disney – especially with the current pandemic messing up holiday plans – I’ve got just the game for you: Disneyland Adventures!

This is actually the second time I’ve bought a copy of this game. I first played it in 2011 or 2012 when it was on the Xbox 360 as Kinect Disneyland Adventures. The Kinect was Microsoft’s foray into the motion-control space, and it was a peripheral for the Xbox 360 (a second version was later bundled with the Xbox One). The Kinect device consisted of a camera and a sensor, and the idea was that it would allow for controller-less play; players would use their arms, legs, and whole bodies to control games.

The Kinect sensor for Xbox 360.

We could spend hours delving into the history of Kinect and its hits and misses; suffice to say the concept was good, but the execution – especially in this first version on the Xbox 360 – wasn’t perfect. Though the Kinect peripheral and its bundled game (simply titled Kinect Adventures) actually ended up being the Xbox 360’s best-selling title, it’s fair to say that it wasn’t the success Microsoft hoped for. The Kinect concept has since been discontinued for gaming, though it is still used in some specialist applications.

Disneyland Adventures is the 2017 re-release of the original 2011 title, and came out for Xbox One and PC. Most importantly it doesn’t require Kinect, nor any other motion controls, and can be played with a normal gamepad. This is the version we’ll be looking at today – and in future updates to this series of posts. If you followed my last “Let’s Play” – where I played through 2019’s Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order – the format will be similar.

Let’s Play Disneyland Adventures.

So what is Disneyland Adventures? It’s a game for kids that features a digital recreation of Disneyland (the original in California) to explore. Fan-favourite characters can be found who’ll give the player little tasks and quests, and some of the park’s most famous rides are reimagined and stylised to form mini-games and levels away from the open space of the theme park.

Today we’ll take a look at the game’s introduction and check out one of those rides.

After a very brief opening cinematic, I had the opportunity to “customise” my character. I’m putting that in inverted commas because the customisation options for Disneyland Adventures are limited, even for a game from 2011. There is a choice of gender, and several of the characters I interacted with had gendered dialogue which I’m assuming does change depending on whether you choose to play as a boy or a girl. And yes, that’s what the game calls its gender choices – the player character is a kid, after all! Other than the gender option there were a handful of different preset faces and a few outfits, and that was all.

My newly-created character by Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.

I’d wager that if you’re even vaguely familiar with Disneyland or the Magic Kingdom, you’ll find that the digital recreation of the park in Disneyland Adventures will feel familiar; I certainly felt that way! The game opened with my (unnamed) character being given a task by Mickey Mouse – take an autograph book to Donald Duck and get his signature. However, after being set this task I was free to explore the park, though there was a quest marker constantly showing my route to Donald’s location.

The Disneyland Monorail makes a loop of the park.

After taking my time to make it to Donald, he signed the autograph book and sent me back to Mickey Mouse. The character voices are all exactly what you’d expect from classic Disney characters, and though the 3D anthropomorphic style used for the characters might take a little getting used to, especially if, like me, you’ve only seen these characters in older 2D animated features, they have a truly classic Disney feel. En route back to Mickey I ran into Captain Hook, and while I couldn’t get his autograph I could interact with him which was fun. Collecting autographs and high-fiving the various characters is going to be a big part of the game.

Dancing a jig with Captain Hook.

Mickey Mouse was still standing near the castle and I returned the autograph book to him. The next quest was to take the book to Goofy in another area of the park, but I took the opportunity to get Mickey’s autograph first. The autographs are one of the games collectables, and they’re divided up into groups of characters.

Getting Mickey’s autograph.

My next task, courtesy of the main mouse himself, was to head over to Goofy and deliver the book. But on the way I decided to have a little bit of a wander through the park – that’s really the main appeal of the game for me! In Tomorrowland, the sci-fi/futuristic area of the park, I met the aliens from Toy Story.

The little aliens.

After that encounter, I tried out one of the attractions – the classic Tomorrowland ride Space Mountain. I’m not wild about ultra-fast rollercoasters usually, but the ones at Disney are done very well and I’ve always enjoyed Space Mountain in particular. In fact, Tomorrowland as a whole is kind of a sci-fi geek’s paradise! The versions of the ride differ at the different theme parks, and I’m sure people who’ve visited all of them will have an opinion on which one is best! In Disneyland Adventures, the attraction stays true to the original theme of the ride – outer space – but kicks it up a gear or two!

Boarding Space Mountain.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the ride; it’s been a while since I played this game, and because even in those days my health wasn’t great, I struggled with the motion controls and didn’t play Disneyland Adventures – or any other Kinect title – very much. But I was pleasantly surprised to find a delightfully old-school on-rails spaceflight game.

An asteroid to avoid in the centre-right, and coins to collect on the right.

In the style of classic arcade games, the player’s vehicle – styled after the ride cars used on the real Space Mountain – moves forward on its own; control is limited to moving side-to-side to avoid obstacles, collect power-ups, and some sections involved shooting a laser-gun.

Targeting reticle to the upper-left and a “hyperspace gate”.

I wasn’t great at the Space Mountain game, I have to be honest. I kept flying into the asteroids and I missed a bunch of power-ups and coins! Luckily the game is very forgiving and every time I crashed I respawned in the same place, not losing any progress. There are more levels within Space Mountain – at least two more – but I didn’t carry on after completing the first stage. There was a “story” of sorts within the mini-game, following my character through several different space environments, including a battle!

Flying past other spaceships in a battlefield.

After exiting Space Mountain I decided to call it a day. I’ll pick up Disneyland Adventures again soon – unlike my last playthrough I’m in no rush to race through everything that the game has to offer. There may be another few parts in this series to come over the next few weeks though, so stay tuned!

I hope you had fun, and if you’re missing Disneyland or find yourself unable to go because of the pandemic, for £15 on Steam this could be a fun distraction. If you aren’t interested in mini-games and collectables perhaps you won’t enjoy it, but for a relatively low price it’s worth a punt in my opinion. If not, keep checking back and follow my playthrough!

Disneyland Adventures is available for PC and Xbox One. Disneyland Adventures is the copyright of the Walt Disney Company and Xbox Game Studios. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Thoughts on Disney Parks giving Splash Mountain a new theme

Though I haven’t been to any of Disney’s theme parks since a brief visit with a friend back in 2009, I consider myself a fan. Walt Disney World is the biggest, and therefore offers the most to do, but the other parks I’ve had the good fortune to visit are enjoyable too.

Splash Mountain isn’t my absolute favourite ride – that honour has to go to the Tommorowland Transit Authority/Peoplemover, which is brilliant and almost always has a short wait – but it’s up there among my favourites.

Splash Mountain at Walt Disney World.
Photo Credit: HarshLight on Flickr via Wikimedia Commons

Criticism of the ride’s theme, which uses characters and songs from the 1946 film Song of the South, has been building for a number of years already, and work to re-theme it has seemed an inevitability – it was just a question of when. Under the current circumstances, where there’s a renewed focus on race in the United States, Disney evidently felt they could wait no longer.

I’ve seen some criticism of the decision, with it being derided as another part of “cancel culture”, but I fully understand why it’s been done. Song of the South is an interesting work of cinema from an historical and academic perspective – but it’s by no means something kids should be watching, and having its characters on one of Disneyland and Walt Disney World’s most prominent and famous attractions is obviously unacceptable. It arguably has been unacceptable for some time.

Song of the South was the first film for which a black American received an Academy Award, and in addition its pioneering blend of live-action and animation arguably laid the groundwork for many of today’s visual effects and CGI. But we’re looking back on it in 2020 in the same way one might look back on The Birth of a Nation – it may have been pioneering in its techniques, but it is undeniably racist in its depiction of black Americans.

Disney parks need to be spaces where everyone can feel welcome, and while Splash Mountain may not have been quite as troublesome as the film it borrows from, the association is enough for many people to feel upset. Furthermore, Disney parks are in a constant state of evolution, with rides being updated and changed all the time. Another of my favourites – Epcot’s Spaceship Earth – is set for a major overhaul in the coming months. It’s no bad thing when a ride is updated, and the re-themed Splash Mountain will be the better for it.

The basic layout of the ride looks set to remain the same. All that will change is the theming – out with Song of the South, in with The Princess and the Frog. The first black Disney Princess had been lacking an attraction of her own at the theme parks, and I honestly couldn’t imagine a more appropriate or poetic way to include her. I don’t think we need to worry about the ride’s song either – The Princess and the Frog had a wonderful jazz soundtrack with some great options to choose from. Or a new song could be composed just for Splash Mountain. I’d be happy either way.

Concept art for the reimagined Splash Mountain.
Picture Credit: The Walt Disney Company

If you like Splash Mountain for the ride itself, nothing will change. And if you enjoyed the theming and lament its passing, I understand. But something that may seem innocuous to one person or group of people may be upsetting or offensive to another, and from Disney’s point of view, making sure everyone feels welcome and included is really important.

Because of my health I have no idea if or when I’ll get back to the Magic Kingdom to see the renovated ride for myself. But if I ever do I’ll be sure to go for a ride on the new Splash Mountain. I think it’ll be absolutely fantastic.

Splash Mountain and The Princess and the Frog are the copyright of the Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Frozen II – Disney’s best sequel?

Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers ahead for both Frozen and Frozen II.

Disney doesn’t have a good track record when producing sequels to its animated hits. There have been a number of attempts over the years to follow up a successful title with a sequel, but usually the main focus of the studio was elsewhere, with the best writers and animators working on the next big title. The result has been that almost every sequel attempt has ended up as a direct-to-video affair, with an expected drop in quality. There have been some gems hidden amongst these titles – The Return of Jafar, the 1994 sequel to Aladdin, being one example – but generally speaking, Disney prefers to direct its attention to projects other than direct sequels.

Frozen II is something altogether different. With the exception of Fantasia 2000, a sequel to 1940’s Fantasia, and a couple of films in the Winnie-the-Pooh series, Disney hasn’t attempted a big-screen sequel that required anywhere close to the effort put in to Frozen II. The first Frozen, which I picked as one of my top ten films of the 2010s, was a runaway hit even by Disney’s standards. In 2013-14 Frozen merchandise was inescapable, and the film had as big of an impact – or bigger – as 1989’s The Little Mermaid, which kicked off the era known as the “Disney Renaissance”. The value of Frozen as a brand was phenomenally high, and cashing in on that success – especially in an era of cinema so dominated by sequels and franchises – was too tempting for the studio to resist!

The relationship between Elsa and Anna is the core of Frozen II.

Because I was living overseas in 2013 I missed practically all of the pre-release marketing for Frozen. It was only when browsing local cinema listing for English-language titles that I first heard of it, and while I had high hopes as I’d always been a Disney fan, I was absolutely blown away by just how amazing that film was. In my opinion at least, the “Disney Renaissance” can be stretched to include 2002’s Lilo and Stitch, but after that the quality of the studio’s output seemed to dip, and while there were still some enjoyable titles in the decade after, Frozen was on a completely different level.

Idina Menzel, who voices the co-lead role of Elsa, is someone I was quite familiar with before Frozen. I’d been lucky enough to see her on stage in the London production of Wicked – a musical about the Wicked Witch of the West from the Oz series. She’d also released three albums by the mid-late 2000s, all of which I owned, and as a big fan of Wicked I was used to hearing her belt out the show’s big hits like The Wizard and I, Popular, and of course Defying Gravity from the show’s soundtrack album. Menzel also had a co-starring role in 2007’s Enchanted, which is a fun parody of some of Disney’s tropes – made by Disney itself. She seemed like a great fit for a starring role in a Disney film, and I wasn’t disappointed by her performance; I’d always felt she was quite an underrated performer.

I guess we can admit – as Frozen II hints at itself – that the song Let It Go may have been played a little too often in the aftermath of the first film’s success, but nevertheless the Frozen soundtrack has to be one of Disney’s best. Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez returned for Frozen II, and the sequel benefits greatly from their involvement. The songs and music have always been a huge part of any Disney title, so getting that right is incredibly important!

Elsa’s reaction to Let It Go was pretty funny.

Elsa’s ballad from early in the film, Into the Unknown, was Frozen II’s answer to Let It Go from the first film. Music is, of course, something very subjective, and comparing two powerful ballads by the same composer sung by the same singer really boils down to “which did I like better?” While I obviously have to concede that my opinion is influenced by having heard Let It Go many more times, I think I prefer it over Into the Unknown. But that’s really just a subjective opinion.

The other two standout songs for me were Lost in the Woods and Some Things Never Change, which was played close to the beginning of the film.

The song Some Things Never Change from Frozen II.

Frozen II picks up the story a few years after the events of the first film. My initial concern on hearing a second film was in development is how it would get around the usual Disney sequel problem, which I can summarise thus: how do you tell a dramatic, engaging, and interesting story after the “happily ever after” moment in the original title? This isn’t a question exclusive to Disney; many sequels can falter when it comes to answering, but because Disney films like Frozen have self-contained stories that are wrapped up by the end, it’s something ever-present and noticeable in practically every Disney sequel. Frozen’s ending answered the question of Elsa’s magic, fixed the relationships between Elsa and Anna, and Anna and Kristoff, and saw the newly-crowned Elsa open up the kingdom of Arendelle and her castle, no longer feeling the need to isolate herself. Any sequel would have to find a way to get around these finalities.

In the film’s early scenes, we’re reintroduced to Elsa and Anna’s parents, who tell the young girls a story of a battle between Arendelle and their northern neighbours near an enchanted forest in a flashback sequence. The Northuldra tribe are evidently based on the Sámi (or Laplander) people who inhabit northern Scandinavia, and I believe Disney consulted Sámi leaders and historians to enhance the tribe’s appearance and portrayal in the film. The cause of the battle between the Northuldra and Arendelle forces is unknown, but as a result the enchanted forest has sealed itself off, shrouded in an impenetrable fog bank.

Frozen dedicated a lot of time and effort to getting its animated snow to look and behave just right in 2013, and that has carried over to this film too. But I want to also acknowledge at this point the fog effect, which is something that can be difficult to get right in computer animation. Frozen II absolutely nailed the way this fog looks and behaves – and as something that does get a fair amount of screen time, it ended up looking amazing and fit right in with the aesthetic of Frozen II’s world.

The fog in Frozen II was beautifully created and animated.

To get back to the plot, the basic premise that the princesses’ grandfather and the rulers of Arendelle were the “bad guys” who instigated the fight with the Northuldra wasn’t well-disguised – but it gets a pass for that as a kids’ film. I’m sure all of the under-tens in the audience were shocked at that revelation! However, it does draw comparisons to the big twist in the first film: that Anna’s fiancé, Prince Hans, was evil and the film’s villain. That twist caught everyone off-guard, simply because Disney had never pulled a stunt quite like it. There may have been some pressure on Frozen II to follow suit and throw in a twist or curveball, and while it was a success as a story point, it wasn’t a shock in the way the Prince Hans twist had been.

The second point to make from this twist is that it leans very strongly into the “white people bad, natives good” storyline that we’ve seen a lot of in recent years. The portrayal of the Northuldra tribe overall definitely veered toward a common trope in fiction called the “noble savage”, which is where native/indigenous peoples are portrayed as being peaceful, in touch with nature, and so on. Neither of these points need to be taken as criticism; we could spend years arguing the history of European colonialism and its lasting impact on the world and get nowhere. The fact that we’re dealing with a couple of tropes that, by 2019, have been used so often that they’re becoming clichéd doesn’t actually detract from the plot of Frozen II, nor make the film worse. But it is worth noting their inclusion.

The Northuldra tribespeople meet with the King of Arendelle and his guards.

In that sense, the way King Runeard is presented, and the way relations between the Northuldra and people of Arendelle unfold is comparable to another Disney classic from a few years ago: Pocahontas. Swap out King Runeard for Governor Ratcliffe, King Agnarr and Queen Iduna for John Smith and Pocahontas, Arendelle and the Northuldra for the English and Powhatan/Algonquian tribe and you have a similar setup and a comparable situation. In recent years Pocahontas has come in for some criticism for its portrayal of Native Americans, and we’ve seen Disney use films like Moana to try to broaden the viewpoints of its heroines to include more non-white and indigenous peoples. While Frozen II doesn’t give us native protagonists it does continue this trend of using fictional settings to at least give some of these aspects of history a cursory glance. And yes, I am aware that Elsa and Anna are revealed partway through the film to be of half-Northuldra descent, but it doesn’t really become a major point for either of their characters until the film’s final moments.

Frozen was a film which broke some of Disney’s self-imposed boundaries, and in particular threw away the idea of princesses as damsels in distress or characters without agency, who do nothing besides waiting for their handsome prince. Not only through the reveal of Prince Hans as a villain, but by making the film’s one great act of true love an act of sisterly love, Frozen placed Elsa and Anna firmly at the centre of the story. Kristoff, Anna’s boyfriend, actually takes on a role in Frozen II not unlike some Disney Princesses of the past – pining for and chasing after Anna. Some films and television shows receive criticism for the way they handle female characters because those characters spend all of their time talking to or about men. Kristoff’s entire storyline in Frozen II is about his relationship with Anna and trying to figure out the best way to propose to her. His big song midway through the film, Lost in the Woods, is one that in years gone by we might’ve expected a film’s female lead to be singing! Turning this trope on its head was fantastic, and it kept Elsa and Anna as the two main protagonists while still including Kristoff in a way that made sense.

Kristoff’s storyline in Frozen II is all about Anna.

The first Frozen took on almost a Christmas vibe due to its wintry setting and heavy use of snow. Elsa’s ice magic is still prominent, but there was certainly less by way of snow and that wintertime, holiday theme than had been present in the first title. The woods – where a large part of the film takes place – have more of an autumnal vibe, and early in the film we see what seems to be a harvest festival taking place. The setting is clearly the late autumn, but we haven’t quite arrived at winter. That’s really neither here nor there, but I thought it worth mentioning.

There are two fake-out character deaths in Frozen II – Olaf and Elsa both appear to succumb to the limitations of magic. Where the first film had clearly established that a “frozen heart” was something terribly damaging, thus explaining why Anna appeared to freeze solid at the film’s climax, the in-universe rules governing how ice magic works in Frozen II seem a little more lax. There was a vague warning about not diving too deep, but nothing that would explicitly mean Elsa should have frozen in the way she did. Olaf’s disintegration makes more sense, given that his existence was tied to Elsa, though. Despite this pretty small nitpick, both Elsa becoming frozen and Olaf evaporating into snow were truly emotional moments, not spoilt in any way by thoughts of why or how. Perhaps it’s best in a Disney film not to question such things anyway!

Olaf’s “death” was an emotional moment in Frozen II.

The climax of the story sees a dam which the princesses’ grandfather had constructed being torn down. The dam, far from being a peace offering to the Northuldra, was in fact a nefarious plot to control their land and water supply, and Elsa realises that the only way to fix things with the spirits and the Northuldra is to destroy it. Elsa and Anna realise why the people of Arendelle were forced to leave town earlier in the film – breaching the dam will release a flood, destroying Arendelle. Despite this enormous sacrifice, they go ahead with the plan and destroy the dam. But Disney could never let a whole city – and the princesses’ castle – be destroyed! Elsa’s return from the ice magic/spirit world means she’s able to use her magic to turn some of the water to ice, saving the town and everyone’s homes.

The reunion between Elsa and Anna, as well as the resurrection of Olaf, was an incredibly emotional moment, and is the heart of the film. Frozen II really succeeded in getting me invested in these characters. As a sequel, part of that is because they’re familiar from the previous film. But as we’ve seen many times, a bad sequel can take once-important characters and rob their stories of any emotional weight. Frozen II is at least on par with the first title when it comes to the emotional stakes – Anna and Elsa’s reunion, and Olaf being restored, parallels the moment in the first film where the one great act of love restored Anna’s frozen heart.

Elsa and Anna are reunited in Frozen II’s final act.

Both Elsa and Anna have very satisfying arcs in Frozen II, despite my initial concerns that they’d already accomplished so much in the first title. Elsa learns the true nature and source of her powers, and their presence in her life is finally explained. Anna learns to step out of Elsa’s shadow and truly become her own person, which sets the stage for her coronation at the end of the film when Elsa chooses to remain with the Northuldra. Cue Frozen III, perhaps?

Far from being the typical Disney sequel I was fearing, with a convoluted and tacked-on plot, Frozen II delivered an experience on par with its predecessor, and managed to tell an interesting, tense, and emotional story where the princesses remained the stars. The introduction of the Northuldra expands our knowledge of Frozen’s setting without feeling out of place, and the Scandinavian theme from the first title continued to be treated respectfully.

While a couple of the story points were a little more obvious than the Prince Hans moment in the first film, I don’t feel that really detracted from the story. And for many of the film’s young viewers, those moments would have been just as surprising. It was great to see the characters from the first film make their returns, as well as meet a handful of newbies.

The relationship between Kristoff and Sven was a great source of fun.

Some of the smaller moments that I liked that I haven’t had a chance to mention yet were: Olaf’s line directly to the camera saying: “you all look a little bit older”. At my age that starts to feel like an attack(!) but for the film’s younger viewers who are returning from the first title, it was a cute acknowledgement that they’re growing up. I’m sure it was appreciated. I liked how one of the girls in the village asks Elsa to make her a sextant from ice in one scene. I liked the uniforms used for the Arendelle soldiers. I liked that there were some hints of newer technology in Arendelle – such as gas lamps and railways – showing that the world is not stagnant or medieval, and that modernity is creeping in. Finally, I liked how Olaf retained his status as the film’s comic relief; he’s great in that role and Josh Gad’s performance was pitch-perfect.

The story of Frozen II was clever, and it didn’t feel like a tacked-on sequel, nor one that disrupted the princesses’ “happily ever after” for no reason. There was a story worth telling at the film’s core, one that had heart and that was entertaining. Compared to Disney’s past attempts at sequels – as well as memorable flops in other franchises – Frozen II is outstanding, and I had a great time with it from beginning to end.

Frozen II is available to stream on Disney+ in the USA, and will be available on Disney+ in the UK from the 3rd of July 2020. The film is also available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Frozen II is the copyright of Disney. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.