I have seen the future, and it’s a nightly fireworks/projection mapping show at Disneyland. Fantasmic, the story of Mickey Mouse losing his gosh dang marbles and battling a dragon, is the key to understanding Disney’s attitude towards all intellectual property. This is how Disney treats Mickey Mouse, its most treasured guy, the lil’ mouse they rewrote copyright law for.
According to Sam Gennaway’s Universal vs. Disney: The Unofficial Guide to American Theme Parks’ Greatest Rivalry, Fantasmic began life as a way to compete with Universal Hollywood’s Conan the Barbarian special effects show. Universal has a fire-breathing dragon, we gotta get a fire-breathing dragon, Disney execs presumably said. But what they surrounded their dragon with is what really sets Fantasmic apart. The show uses projection mapping, screens made of water vapor, fountains, pyrotechnics, actors, and every vehicle that crosses the Rivers of America. The Huck Finn rafts are transformed into raver orangutan barges, the sailing ship Columbia becomes Captain Jack Sparrow’s Black Pearl and the Mark Twain Riverboat ferries all your friends in the big finale.
I used to ignore the show when visiting the parks. The crowds that gathered to watch Mickey trip balls every night were a huge inconvenience. But during lockdown, desperate for even crumbs of the theme park experience, I watched a YouTube video of the Disneyland version. I was shocked by what I saw. No structure, no dramaturgy, just vibes. Fantasmic is a supremely weird nighttime spectacular which asks the question “What if the evil queen from Snow White hated Mickey Mouse’s guts?” That all these film villains know Mickey Mouse and wish to cause him pain is brain-breaking.
The show begins with a voice over explaining that we’re all going on Mickey Mouse’s shroom trip. Er, that is, through his imagination. With a small caveat: “Nothing is more powerful than the imagination. For it can also expand your greatest fears into an overwhelming nightmare.” What follows is an exquisitely done, yet ultimately hollow, mashup of the Walt Disney Company’s greatest hits. All of Disney’s shows and parades have elements of mashup to them, but none so thoroughly blend properties together. All the comphet Prince/Princess couples dance together in a big love medley. Kaa from The Jungle Book dances with Timon and Pumba, as well as the Heffalumps from Winnie the Pooh. Pixar gets a nod when Finding Nemo is shoehorned into an undersea squad with Ariel and Monstro from Pinnochio.
Despite a rocky start that coincided with the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles (which caused the Imagineers to remove the show’s tagline, “Be there when the night ignites”), Fantasmic was massively successful. It became the blueprint for how Disneyland would treat its IP going forward. Get all the guys together with no plot, like it’s an Adam Sandler movie. Until the pandemic, a version of the show ran at least nightly on both sides of the U.S. and in Japan.
Fantasmic is really about the Disney Adults (and presumably the kids, but what are kids if not a bumper crop of future nostalgists?) seeing All Their Friends. And that’s all Disney-owned properties do now. They are a pageant where each beloved character steps into a spotlight, waves at the public, then makes room for the next fan favorite.
We’ve seen the total Fantasmification of Star Wars and Marvel with things like the voice cameo-palooza that was Rise of Skywalker and the girlboss fight in Avengers: Endgame. It’s even creeped into the Fox properties with the execrable Simpsons shorts. If anyone wants to experience Fantasmic in a condensed form, watch Plusiversary. It’s the crossover branding nightmare Matt Groening feared “A Star Is Burns” would be.
Not all Fantasmified properties are giving zombie IP vibes, however. The Wreck-Its Ralph used the games and properties they smooshed together to comment on storytelling constraints in each medium. And massive crossovers have existed long before Maleficent ever tried to set Mickey Mouse on fire. What is The Sandman if not Neil Gaimain’s Fantasmification of myth, Shakespeare, and DC comics? It’s when mashup energy boxes out new ideas that the work suffers.
One of the most interesting moments in Fantasmic comes in Chernobog’s villain segment. The Fantasia baddie summons his demon hordes and ghost warriors to scare Mickey Mouse to death, and the show uses the film’s original animation to do so. The ghosts in the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment were hand drawn in a way that looked crude even for 1940, and intentionally so. You can see individual pencil lines, making the ghosts feel more ephemeral than the inked and painted characters in other parts of the film. You are struck with the knowledge that one man drew this line. A computer projects a dead man’s work in a format he could never have foresaw. After Robin Williams died, the same thing happened to his work as the Genie in Aladdin. Decades after Williams clashed with Disney over the overuse of the Genie, the blue dude is singing to Mickey twice nightly.
Nobody gets to die at Disney. Not Carrie Fisher, not Robin Williams, not even Walt. The frozen head story is a myth, but the company will keep every character in their repertoire on ice until it can be thawed for further profit.
Bethy Squires is a writer and Magic Key holder in Hollywood. You can find her on Twitter @BethyBSQU.