Friday, September 15, 2017

Fantasy Goes Live (and Corporate) at Universal Studios

Universal Pictures, founded in 1912, today is America’s oldest movie studio. Long ago Universal was best known for its monster films, notably Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy. Universal’s affection for horror has continued through the years: visitors to the studio backlot are shown sets and memorabilia connected with such super-scary movies as Psycho, Jaws, and Jurassic Park. There’s nothing Universal loves more than a good scare.

But of course it was those studio tours that really put Universal on the map as a major SoCal attraction. They began all the way back in 1915, cost a nickel, and included a boxed chicken lunch. (Today’s prices are a whole lot higher. It costs $25 simply to park your car.) In 1964, under corporate ownership, Universal began to seriously turn itself into a theme park. It started with a narrated bus ride highlighted by glimpses of stars’ bungalows and by such “surprises” as a disintegrating bridge and a flash flood that showed off what Hollywood could do by way of movie magic. Gradually, there arose Disneylandish “lands” dedicated to the Universal hits of the moment.

There’ve been some strange bedfellows in this process. For years one of the park’s most popular rides allowed visitors to vicariously experience a bonafide Universal blockbuster, Back to the Future. Eventually, though, that magic DeLorean was sent to the junkyard. As I discovered on a recent visit to Universal Studios Hollywood, this ride’s place has now been taken by an elaborate homage to The Simpsons, the long-running cartoon show that hails not from Universal but from Fox Studios. Instead of hurtling into space in miniature DeLoreans, visitors in a Simpson-esque jalopy now try to escape Sideshow Bob’s attempts to derail the Krustyland Theme Park. It’s scary and goofy at the same time.

Like most of today’s theme-park “dark rides,” this Simpsons adventure combines physical jolts with the dramatic use of film that draws visitors into the action. In other of the park’s attractions, like the one featuring those madcap Minions, 3-D glasses enhance the effect. As your seat bounces and soars, you can be forgiven for feeling a bit queasy. But it’s doubtless both cheaper and safer to explore the possibilities of the film medium than to build an old-fashioned outdoor roller coaster. And the results, while doubtless less heart-stopping for the rider, are a great deal more imaginative.

The pride of today’s Universal Studios is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Here once again is an elaborate “land” dedicated to a movie project made by another studio (Warner Bros.). Nonetheless, the Universal braintrust has lavished much love and care on reproducing all the familiar Potter tropes. There’s the charming town of Hogsmead, covered with snow (quite a contrast to the California summer). You can sample butter beer, have a magic wand choose you at Ollivanders, and bop to the music of a frog chorale. Above it all looms the enormous bulk of Hogwarts. Enter, and you’ll find yourself playing follow-the-leader with Harry himself as, on his broomstick, he eludes a giant dragon and plunges down toward a raging chasm. (My stomach has still not quite recovered.) In this ride above all, the possibilities of cinema as a visceral experience are fully sampled.

I was cheered by the fact that there’s live action too: clever on-site performers (like that wand-making expert), as well as cheerful employees who deftly enhance the fun. No wonder so many guests purchase interactive wands and academic robes. Much as I love movies, I adore encounters with human beings who know how to welcome me into a fantasy world.

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