Why 'Impressions de France' is the best movie ever made for a theme park
By Robert Niles: Creating a theme park travelogue must be like taking the history exam from hell.
You've got 20 minutes to tell the entire story of a nation. Blow any details, and an unholy alliance of ethnic activists and theme park fans will bombard the media with complaints, embarrassing your theme park client. Fail to hold your viewers' attention, and the park will close your movie and turn the theater into a holding queue for a souped-up tram ride.
So you play it safe, right? Hire or create an audience-friendly narrator, find some mild conflict to drive the plot (nothing that's spilling blood these days, of course) and commission a hook-laden pop tune for the uplifting finale.
But it never really works. The twenty minutes that most theme park films get simply isn't enough time to tell a nation's story. So you're left with a simplistic, overly earnest work that tries to charm like a puppy in a pet store cage.
Epcot's Impressions de France wins by refusing to play this game. No traveler ever really learns the story of a nation. At best, he or she absorbs a few instructive impressions about the land he or she has visited. And that's what Impressions de France offers -- impressions.
Impressionism, of course, is France's gift to art. By eschewing narrative for impressionism, director Rick Harper played on France's home turf. And he also created a work that would not grow stale after a few viewings. Effective impressionism reflects the viewer as well as the artist, allowing a work to change and develop in a viewer's eyes over the years, as that viewer brings something different to each encounter with the work.
Even outside the travel genre, theme park films often fail on this account. Lacking the immersive environment of a dark ride, or even a roller coaster, the short films that screen in theme parks too often offer too little to engage a audience after three, five or ten viewings. You've seen Shrek go over the waterfall or Prof. Szalinski's mice crawl over your lap a few times and... meh. What's the wait time for Pirates again?
When I first watched Impressions de France as a perpetually hungry teen-ager more than two decades ago, I couldn't get enough of the marketplace scene, as the kids rushed toward the shelves of pastries and sweets. Today, married and with children of my own, other scenes capture my eye and imagination. I notice the father in the red jacket whom the waiting mother and child wave to as he arrives in the train station. When a newly-married couple emerges from the church in Brittany, my heart soars with hope as the scene melts into a vision of an elderly couple, in the same evening twilight, walking alone atop the cliffs of Normandy. Could it be the same couple, still together after many decades?
All these details, emerging from my impressions, rewarding me with something fresh upon every visit. How can you not love this film?
And the music. Buddy Baker's score envelops Harper's film with luscious French melodies, from Debussey's "Claire de Lune" to Saint Saens' soaring Organ Symphony no. 3. Walt Disney understood the power of classical music, drawing upon it to power works from Fantasia to Sleeping Beauty. Here, Baker extends Disney's vision, selecting the best of French classical works to enliven Harper's engaging visual images.
No, this is a not a complete picture of France. You won't find mention of labor trouble or ethnic conflict here. Its impressions of the nation are not made randomly, but instead draw from moments of France at leisure.
As it should for an audience that is, itself, on vacation.
By ignoring the story of France to share impressions of France, Harper's film scorns the brain to engage the heart. And, with the power of its music, it succeeds.
That is why Impressions de France is the best film ever made for a theme park.
Please visit Theme Park Insider's Impressions de France listing page for a complete list of the classical selections played during the film.