The Septembrist recapitulation

Thursday, 8 September 2005 — 3:51pm | Animation, Film, Video games

As some readers may have noticed – and whoever they are, I admire their persistence in providing return traffic in the face of abject futility, however motivated by ennui it may be – this alleged weblog has been less than rife with recent activity of late. As pleasurable as it is to thumb my virtual nose at virtual people in this besotted cyber-realm with only words as my weapon, I must admit it has not in contemporaneous times been my first and foremost love.

Advance Wars: Dual Strike is not my first and foremost love either, but it is most of what I have been galvanizing to fill the few extant temporal vacuums that betray the character of the astute hobbyist. It is, in short, probably the most enthralling video game I’ve played on any system this calendar year – the dream strategy title for those who prefer patient and methodical turn-based analysis to the rapid improvisation of an RTS, but can spare neither the time or the commitment to get mired in late-game micromanagement. For a crude associative description: think of it as a Sid Meier game with everything removed except combat and cold, hard cash. As a result it moves a lot faster, but has just enough depth to open the possibility of dragging out a battle to be settled by attrition – and you will sit through the ordeal without realizing how many hours are going by outside your soap bubble of virtual warfare.

In a way, the various incarnations of Advance Wars – and this one in particular, given the tangible manipulation of pieces offered by its supplementary touchscreen control scheme – mark the natural evolution of the tabletop board game, with all the conveniences of the digital age as their selected adaptations: interchangeable and editable board layouts, automated calculations in the place of twenty-sided dice, and artificial intelligence robust enough to provide competent opposition when there exist no other DS owners within a radius of thirty feet. I almost wish Dual Strike were released with support for Nintendo’s global Wi-Fi network to launch in November, but it already provides a bountiful playing experience as it is; besides, the scale of multiplayer matchups it makes possible have a tendency to result in disconnections and dead batteries.

And now for something completely different. As you may know, Disneyland celebrated its 50th anniversary this summer after a year of renovations and refurbishments – and boy, was it worth it. I’ve had the good fortune of visiting the resort on numerous occasions, and it’s never looked so good. The original rides are now decorated with gold-plated anniversary cars (or horses, or teacups, or whatever applies). There’s a museum of Disneyland memorabilia with such exhibits as blueprints and schematic artwork, every variety of admission ticket from every era, and a cheesy but insightful doc short hosted by Steve Martin and Donald Duck.

Classic Disney scenes are on display throughout the park in the form of photo collages assembled from the visages of animators, staffers and guests, each of them consisting of two to ten thousand images. As you enter Main Street, there is a grandiose two-level monochrome collage where these photographs congeal into the faces of the men and women who were with Uncle Walt’s empire when it began, which in turn compose a still from “Steamboat Willie”. I’ve found an online archive of these exhibits, and the one I just spoke of is here, but a mere JPEG does not capture the sheer ambition of the monument. Nor does a photograph show you that the Haunted Mansion collage glows in the dark. There are wonders to behold at this happy place, and this is just one of them. There are others.

The fireworks, for instance. Nowadays, we are so accustomed to pyrotechnics that it’s easy to be disenchanted at how fireworks, while still magnificent once you delve into the constructed choreography of a given display, all look and feel the same. Sure, the last decade or so have brought us the odd laser projection every so often, but we are fundamentally looking at the same old centrifugal fractal patterns set to Tchaikovsky, right?

Well, since 17 July, Disneyland has restored genuine spectacle to the ancient art of synchronized rocketry. The proverbial magic is back. Sparks fly over the repainted Sleeping Beauty Castle to the tune of “When You Wish Upon a Star” like the opening titles of a feature film, but live and right in front of you. Tinker Bell zips around the parapets. And it’s all narrated by Mary Poppins – that is to say, Julie Andrews.

Then the display becomes a sort of interpretive dance of light and sound, a whirlwind tour of Disneyland attractions representing each of its sectors (though “It’s A Small World” is noticeably absent, and the New Orleans sector is underscored by Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” played, not surprisingly, too fast). There’s a broadside battle waged right over the heads of the audience for “Pirates of the Caribbean”, and if you sit close enough you can see the Jolly Roger aglow on the Matterhorn’s peak like a distant Bat-Signal. “Star Tours” has laser cannons and explosions of green flame that light up the night set to John Williams’ end credits to Episode IV. The Frontierland shooting gallery features ducks with targets on them projected on the castle itself, which move about and seemingly get shot down one by one. And so on.

I’ve never seen anything like it. Chances are you haven’t either, unless you paid the House that Walt Built a visit of your own in the last seven or eight weeks.

If you plan to visit Disneyland anytime in the near future, or if you’ve never been there – make it so and make it soon. The “Happiest Homecoming on Earth” celebration is supposed to last until September 2006, according to the five-part golden anniversary retrospective that was posted at Jim Hill Media the same week I was in Anaheim, though by next summer’s end the top-billed novelty may have tapered off somewhat.

You really do have to see those fireworks show. My description does it about as much justice as a Klingon court-martial.

I haven’t devoted any of my recent blog-writing to what’s going on in wide-release cinema, in spite of having seen a passable, if less-than-usual quantity of major films of the ones that hit theatres between May and August, that quantity being eleven and a half. (The English dub of Howl’s Moving Castle is the half.) I attribute this to two causes. The first is that July and the better (or in this case, worse) part of August were for all intents and purposes dead, and all rumours of a box-office slump are for once both patently true and justified. The second is that the big films of May and June that were any good, a surprising number of them, turned out to be phenomenal; simply praising these achievements is a monotonous and redundant activity, and critiquing them intelligently takes too long.

Perhaps I will at some point offer a synoptic assessment that gathers and dispenses with the lot, but not today. For now, just go see the most satisfying film of the past few weeks, and certainly one of the best of the year. It’s called The Constant Gardener and it stars Lord Voldemort.

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