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“Why For?”

Jim Hill answers even more of your Disney related questions. This time around, it’s three about the sea. As in: Where exactly is Walt Disney World’s first wave machine located, what’s the deal with that missing shark scene in “The Little Mermaid” and – finally – a follow-up on yesterday’s controversial “Finding Nemo” story.

Estelle E. from Cobleskill, N.Y. writes to say:

Jim –

You seem to know a lot about the early days at Walt Disney World. So maybe you can answer this question: When my husband and I first vacationed at the resort back in the fall of 1971, I distinctly recall seeing men on surf boards riding the waves off shore of the Polynesian Hotel. But that was the only time – in my 50 plus visits to WDW – that I ever saw anything like that out on Seven Seas Lagoon.

Did I really see this, Jim? Did people really used to surf out on Seven Seas Lagoon? Or did all that Orlando humidity cause my brains to fry?

Nope, you’re not suffering FBS (Fried Brain Syndrome), Estelle. You really did see surfers out on Seven Seas Lagoon. You see, backin the early 1970s, there actually was a fully functioning wave machine hidden out under those seemingly ornamental islands just off shore of Walt Disney World’s Polynesian Beach Resort. The idea was that – in order to recreate the authentic look & feel of a real South Seas resort – the Polynesian needed to have gentle waves slapping against the sandy shore right outside the hotel.

So – as Seven Seas Lagoon was being carved out of the cypress swamps right next door to Bay Lake -- the Imagineers had this wave machine installed 50 yards off shore of where the Polynesian was going to be built. Of course, the beauty of this particular wave machine is that it could be adjusted. Push one button and you get soft, gentle waves lapping against the shore. Push another button and you get perfect curls for surfing.

The downside of this set-up is that the Imagineers forgot to factor in the effect that waves actually have on the shore. As in erosion. Which means that the folks at the Poly found that – if they ran that wave machine for too long – it actually had a pretty detrimental effect on the hotel’s beach area.

Which is why – starting in the Winter of 1971 / 1972 – the people at the Polynesian began cutting back on the number of hours that they’d run their wave machine each day. Eventually – to cut back on the cost of regularly having to repair the hotel’s beach – they stopped running the machine entirely.

But WDW Vice President Dick Nunis just loved the Polynesian’s wave machine. He’s the one who probably hired those kids that you saw riding those surf boards, Estelle. Nunis dreamed of actually staging surfing competitions out there on Seven Seas Lagoon. Which was why Dick was heartbroken when he learned that the Imagineers couldn’t figure out a way to fix WDW’s wave machine. As in make the thing run without totally trashing the Poly’s soft, sandy beach area.

Of course, given that this wave machine was installed while Seven Seas Lagoon was being built, there was just no way to remove that machinery without first draining the lake. Which – given that the Walt Disney World resort is open 365 days a year – this isn’t ever going to happen. Which is why WDW’s original wave machine remains in place, rusting away under those ornamental islands just off shore of Disney’s Polynesian Beach Resort.

Of course, Dick Nunis never forgot about his dream of staging surf contests at Walt Disney World. So when the Imagineers began hatching their plans to build a second water park at the Orlando resort – Typhoon Lagoon – in the mid-1980s, Nunis insisted that WDI include a wave machine as a key component in that park. Which is one of the reasons that that water park was such a huge hit when it opened in 1989.

So – long story short, Estelle – No, you weren’t hallucinating. You really did see people riding the curls out on the water next to WDW’s Polynesian Resort Hotel. They just didn’t do it for very long.

Next, Ariel’s-Twin-Sister wrote in to say:


I absolutely lo-o-o-ove your site & all the great behind-the-scenes stories that you tell about the Walt Disney Company. I particularly enjoyed your recent column about the original opening for “Beauty and the Beast.” So I was wondering … Do you have any stories about any scenes that got cut from MY favorite film, “The Little Mermaid”?

Actually, Ariel’s-Twin-Sister, I do. By that I mean, not a story about a whole scene that got cut out of that film. But – rather -- a pretty funny gag that was set up in the final version of “The Little Mermaid” that never got paid off.

Which gag am I talking about? Well, do you recall Ariel’s introductory scene in “The Little Mermaid”? The one where she and Scuttle going searching through the wreck of a ship for human artifacts, only to be attacked by a great white shark.

That shark’s name (at least according to the film’s original screenplay) was Glut. And – according to the first draft of that script – in his desperate desire to consume Ariel & Flounder as he surges through the ship, the shark swallows a lot of things. Including a French horn. Then the two friends escape only because Glut gets his head caught in the rope end of an anchor. But not before Glut makes one, final snap at Flounder.

That was a funny but pretty exciting sequence, wasn’t it? But – upon reflection – doesn’t Glut’s moment in the movie seem like an awfully large introduction for a character that you never see again? Well – as it turns out – “The Little Mermaid” ‘s writers / directors John Musker & Ron Clements HAD intended on bringing Glut back. More importantly, giving the character a really spectacular send-off later on in the movie.

How so? Well, do you remember “The Little Mermaid” ‘s action packed finale? The part that begins when Eric sets sail on his wedding barge with the magically disguised Ursula. Ariel is left alone on the dock, as the sun begins to set. Triton’s daughter is heartbroken. But her animal friends refuse to give.

Sebastian uses his claw to cut a rope that’s securing a barrel to the dock. The crab then tells Ariel to grab onto the barrel while Flounder (who’s taking hold of the part of the rope that’s still secured to the barrel) tows her out to the wedding barge. Sebastian then orders Scuttle to do whatever he has to delay the ceremony.

That’s pretty much how you remember this scene from the movie, isn’t it? Well, what’s missing from the final version of this sequence in “The Little Mermaid” is that – just before Ariel & Flounder reach the wedding barge – Glut spies them again, out in the open ocean. So the Great White swims up underneath them and throws open his enormous jaws when …

Ariel & Flounder reach the boat. The Little Mermaid is able to clamber up the side of the ship just as Flounder spies Glut. The terrified little fish then crams the barrel into the Great White’s gaping maw. As Glut bites down on the wooden container, the camera zooms in to reveal the “Gun Powder” label that’s pasted to the side of the barrel.

Cut to the deck of the wedding barge. Prince Eric & Ursula’s ceremony is interrupted as the ship is rocked by an enormous off-screen explosion. Tons of water now rain down on everyone standing on deck. After a slight pause, a battered French horn falls out of the sky – landing right at Ursula’s feet.

Pretty funny, huh? So why didn’t this gag make it into the final, finished version of “The Little Mermaid”? To be honest, time and money played an important part in Glut’s return getting cut. As the movie entered its final phase of production and Disney’s animators were rushing to finish up the project, Musker & Clements began actively looking for things to cut. Little bits of things that they could cut to speed up production, simplify the picture. Stuff that they could drop without hurting the fil

Everyone at WDFA agreed that Glut’s return was a great gag. But not absolutely essential to the telling of the “Little Mermaid” ‘s story. Which is why this joke eventually ended up on the cutting room floor.

Of course, once I learned about this joke getting cut, I found that I can’t watch this part of “The Little Mermaid” – the sequence where Flounder is busting his butt to tow Ariel out to the wedding barge -- without thinking “Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if that great Glut joke that Ron’n’John had set up actually finally got paid off?”

Hmmn. I wonder if someone should let the folks who are working on the IMAX version of “The Little Mermaid” about this scene? I don’t know if the folks at Disney would actually dare to call the upcoming Platinum Collection DVD a “Special Edition” if all the animators did was finally fold in the pay-off for a gag that got set up ‘way back in 1989 … But still … It’s worth a thought.

Anyway … And – finally – following up on yesterday’s “Is Disney trying to torpedo ‘Nemo’?” story, BobbyV from Vail wrote to say:

Mr. Hill –

It was bad enough last year when you suddenly switched sides on the California Adventure issue and became one of DCA’s staunchest apologist. But now you’re going to start carrying water for Pixar too? Please!?

Did it ever occur to you that those test scores that this supposed Disney insider source has allegedly been leaking to entertainment & financial reporters might be right? Maybe “Finding Nemo” really is a mediocre movie. That teaser trailer for the film that Pixar put in front of my “Monsters, Inc.” DVD certainly was a snore. All those talking fish just left me cold. (Cold. Fish. Get it?)

Steve Jobs is a big boy, Jim. He doesn’t need your help, Hill. Let him fight his own fights, okay?

Bobby V –

Look, I honestly understand that it’s possible that Pixar could produce a mediocre movie. After all, just taking the law of averages into account, someday it’s gotta happen. Not every film can be a “Toy Story II” or “Monsters, Inc.” sized hit. Someday, one of that studio’s productions isn’t going to connect with a mainstream audience. Pixar’s going to burp out a clinker.

I just don’t think that “Finding Nemo” is going to be that film. I mean – based on what I’ve been hearing about “Finding Nemo” – this picture does evidently have some problems. Chief among these is that children seem to be somewhat put off by Albert Brooks’ vocal performance. Adults are said to love Brooks’ work as Marlin, the film’s fretful father fish. But kids are said to be having trouble warming up to the film’s central character – thanks mostly to the edgy, anxious spin that Albert has put on most of his dialogue.

But -- on the flip side -- Ellen DeGeneres is reportedly getting high marks from audience members of all ages for her vocal performance as Dory, the Regal Blue Tang with memory problems. DeGeneres’ work here supposedly adds tons of fun to the film, as does William Dafoe & Stephen Root’s performances as fish that Nemo encounters when he’s trapped in that fish tank in the dentist’s office.

But what really drives this film is Marlin’s quest to find his son, Nemo. Hence the film’s title, “Finding Nemo.” But if Brooks’ vocal performance in the part that actually drives the movie’s action is actively turning off kids … That’s going to be a problem. For Pixar (the company that’s making the movie) as well as Disney (the corporation’s that gotta distribute this supposedly flawed film).

Now – before we got any further here – it’s important to recognize the role that test screenings play in the film making process. For they allow the movie makers to really see what an audience thinks of their picture. To get some good, solid feedback on what things need to be tightened and/or reworked.

It’s also important to remember – six months prior to its release – “Monsters, Inc.” was also getting somewhat iffy scores during its test screenings from kids. But that was mostly because of the film’s scary opening sequence. Which is what prompted Pixar to go back & rework that particular scene, folding in lots of additional physical stuff to happen to poor Mr. Bile (“My friends called me Phlegm”). Once those gags were in place (and kids could see – right from the get-go – that “Monsters, Inc.” was supposed to be a fun flick), the test scores for that film shot right up.

Unfortunately, “Finding Nemo” ‘s reported problems don’t really lend themselves to this sort of quick fix. Making Marlin more kid friendly would supposedly involve making dozens of changes – both large & small – to the almost finished film. And give that the picture’s May 2003 release date is already locked in, there really isn’t enough time at this point to make too many changes.

So Pixar may have no choice but to stick with “Finding Nemo” as it is and hope that the test audiences were wrong, hoping against hope that the general public will embrace Albert Brooks’ somewhat anxious take on Marlin. There’s still time to make some changes. Just not a whole lot of changes.

And – just for the record, BobbyV – regarding yesterday’s story: I’m not out to carry water for Pixar. I’m not trying to fight Steve Jobs’ fights for him. I wasn’t trying to brush over the fact that “Finding Nemo” supposedly got some low test scores during its recent test screening. My problem was with that Team Disney – Burbank exec who reportedly has been going out of his way to spread the bad news about those low test scores far and wide.

I know, I know, BobbyV. The most important word in “Show Business” is “Business.” And Disney has long been known for playing hardball. So – if deliberately leaking info to the financial & entertainment press about how “Finding Nemo” was supposedly not exactly winning over test audiences can be played to Mickey’s advantage – Well, all’s fair in love & war, I guess.

It just seems (at least to me) like such a strange, passive - aggressive negotiating ploy. Similar to Mickey’s decision to sign that deal with Vanguard Animation right in the middle of the Walt Disney Company’s attempt to arrange an extension of its five picture deal with Pixar. What is Jobs (Or – for that matter – Lasseter) supposed to think after the Mouse makes a move like that?

Okay. So maybe this is all the action of a single individual who just has an axe with the “Cal Arts Mafia.” But – given how systemically this “ ‘Finding Nemo’ is testing poorly” story appears to have been distributed – I can’t help but think that there’s something more significant going on behind the scenes.

But – what the hey – I could be wrong. After all, Hollywood is a town that loves to build people up, then tear them down. And Pixar HAS had a rather long run of box office successes. Perhaps professional jealousy IS helping to speed the “ ‘Finding Nemo’ got lousy scores at its recent test screening” story along. Maybe industry insiders are just taking great pleasure with the idea that Pixar may finally be in for its first flop

Of course, one of the reasons that Lasseter & Co. opted to set up their studio ‘way up around San Francisco was so that they could avoid just this sort of Hollywood bullshit. It’s just too bad that – in today’s world of teleconferencing, e-mail & instantaneous communication – being hundreds of miles away from Tinsel Town doesn’t make you immune to the gossip anymore. Nowadays, the bullshit comes to you

So my apologies to those of you who thought that yesterday’s piece was more gossip than news. I did make repeated attempts to get someone who was “in the know” to go on the record about this story. But – surprise, surprise – no one out there wanted to the first one to officially pissed off the Mouse and/or Pixar. So all those folks I talked with over the past 10 days insisted that their comments to me be used as deep background or as strictly off the record stuff.

So that’s all I’m going to say about this particular story for now. Mind you, I will continue to monitor the whole “Finding Nemo” / Disney & Pixar negotiation situation. As this story continues to develop, I hope that I’ll get the chance to revisit it. I just hope that – next time around – someone “in the loop” will be brave enough to go on the record and reveal what’s really going on.

That’s it for now, kids. Have a great weekend, okay? We’ll talk again on Monday.


Previous "Why For" Articles

October 11, 2002

October 4, 2002

September 13, 2002

September 19, 2002