Monday, September 6, 2010

Journey into Imagination: The Missing Spark

I grew up on old movies. You know the old joke - "my parents didn't have a '60s or '70s; they had three '50s"? Yeah, that was my family. But in those old movies, with their schmaltz and sometimes simpler view of the world, were some overlooked truths. Take, for example, Miracle on 34th Street.

The classic 1947 film features a mother who has raised her daughter "realistically" with no fairy tales or stories of wonder, an upbringing that little prepares her for the entrance of a gentleman who believes he is (and may just be) Kris Kringle. As the characters in the film prepare Thanksgiving dinner, the young daughter, Susan, expresses her frustration with the other children playing zoo and their refusal to play with her because she insisted on the truth - that she was a little girl. The scene becomes a lesson in imagining, with Mr. Kringle tutoring Susan in how to use her imagination to be a monkey.

It's a simple, charming moment, full of face pulling and silliness, but it also expresses a deeper truth - something that more modern times seem to have forgotten: imagination requires guidance.

In our world, filled with computer graphics, digital billboards, and universal connectivity, the concept of imagination has become rather passé. Of course we have imaginations; human beings come with those. But there's a serious flaw in that casual attitude. Human beings are complex creatures, and like most complex beings, we are not equipped with some magical instinct that guides us in using our ability. We do not naturally reach our potential or see the possibilities in things that do not come naturally to us. We need to be taught. And our imaginations are no exception; unless we are taught to use them, they atrophy or turn selfish or sour.

The original iteration of Journey into Imagination understood that need, and underscored it to its audience, cloaked in whimsy and joy not unlike that of Ed Gwynn's Kris Kringle. By introducing audiences to the Dreamfinder, Tony Baxter and Steve Kirk established a guide, a teacher who could nurture and broaden the boundless enthusiasm and childish delight of Figment. Dreamfinder was the experienced one, not bereft of imagination, but a wise guide who could help Figment (and the audience) see the real potential of imagining.

Take, for example, the lightning captured in the opening sequence; it frightens Figment with his charming, childish nature. It is the Dreamfinder who points out its potential for "a tale of fright." It is the teacher, not the student, who is able to see the possibility in something not immediately appealing, and point out that wonder.

Without Dreamfinder, that dynamic of teacher, guide and mentor is lost. And, sadly, so is the underlying lesson about nurturing imagination. The newest iteration of the attraction again introduces an "adult" figure in the form of Dr. Nigel Channing, but now rather than guide and mentor, he is a figure sadly lacking in imagination. Rather than teaching Figment about using and enjoying imagination, he becomes the student - learning a lesson about how imagination benefits scientific innovation.

I fully understand the importance of change in any venue, and in the theme park milieu in particular. And, inexpert as I am in Disney history, I know very, very well that Walt Disney was infamous for demanding change with little consideration for nostalgia or longevity. But change inevitably brings with it new ideas and themes, and it is the alteration of those basic themes in Journey into Imagination that sadden me.

Perhaps the change is timely; the message that adults have lost touch with childish joy and imagination is, arguably, important. But the limitation of the importance of joy and imagination to a scientific venue is strangely uncomfortable. What about scary stories on a stormy night? What about theatre? What about the arts? Have we wandered so far from valuing those in our society that they deserve only a passing mention? Have we truly come to a place where imagination is presented more as the Freudian Id, a creature of mischief and subversive, if sometimes charming, desire?

Maybe it's the fact that I did grow up with old movies and the values they espoused, but I miss the idea of imagination as a boundless resource that must be taught, nurtured, and encouraged. I remember spending hours in the ImageWorks play area, not feeling as if I were being pushed toward scientific endeavor, but reveling in exploring the possibilities and wonders created by opportunity...and my own imagination.

Perhaps my disappointment and resentment comes from being an adult and seeing myself re-cast in the attraction. Instead of a nurturing mentor deeply in touch with the wonder and joy of the imagination, I see an up-tight scientist who must be tortured and taught by a spark of imagination. That's a sad commentary on our world, and a loss of the idea that "Adults are only kids grown up, anyway."

I don't like the new Journey into Imagination. It seems lacking in its titular element - imagination. Instead, it explores mischief and playful subversion as inspiration for scientific achievement. And while that may be an important goal, it fails to encourage its viewers to nurture wonder and to look for and shape wonder in the coming generation. To me, that is a tragic loss.

I still believe in the power of imagination and its potential to be shaped and to shape worlds. I believe in Dreamfinder and a world of wonder. I believe in the importance of teaching and training imagination to become an integral part of everything we do and of the way we see our world. If we lose that focus on shaping ideas, mischief and childish delight, then we have a grim future in front of us. I still believe that with just that spark in me and you...