TPU Review: Mickey and the Magical Map: Story vs. Premise

Months and months ago Disneyland Creative Entertainment posted this lovely graphic preview of their upcoming show for the refurbished Fantasyland Theater, Mickey and the Magical Map.

Image copyright The Disney Company

Beautiful, isn’t it? And one can imagine all kinds of wonderful possibilities in such a setting. Sad to say, my first thought was, “Please, guys, not another random collection of familiar tunes grouped in service to a vague premise. Tell us a story, a new story.” After all – no kid ever climbed into bed and demanded to hear a ‘Bedtime Premise’.

Then, recently, the show debuted. And the setting is every bit as lovely as the graphic. The map is amazing, a huge video installation that appears ready to sweep us away to any fantasy land from Disney history… and the ‘Map Makers’ chorus/dancers are attractive and talented.

Mickey is fully articulated for this show, and seamlessly blends with his animated self for the more athletic passages. All the classic characters are engagingly presented… and the new King Louie is worth the price of admission alone – both for his enthusiastic performance and the new, ingenious costuming.

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And, as there always is for any new medley show, the theme song is an original composition, titled (ironically enough) ‘Journey to Imagination’. Certainly made me chuckle. But, hey… it’s a concept they aren’t using anywhere else at present, so why the hell not?

The show concerns the Sorcerer Yen Sid’s creation of a giant map. He is presented in man-to-mouse scale, so he towers over Mickey and the artists. It’s a great concept… a novel use of a rarely-seen character…

And, at present, an embarrassment. The size of the image magnifies the flaws in his animation; something that has been universally pointed out by other reviewers. However, having personally witnessed how Mr. Lassetter and company upgraded the CGI cast of the Laugh Floor after previews, I’m holding out hope that this will be addressed down the road.

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Students who haven’t been napping in my class will remember my 5 Elements of Good Themed Entertainment:

  1. Deliver What You Promise,
  2. Don’t Waste My Time,
  3. Make Me Laugh,
  4. Surprise Me, and
  5. Move Me.

The first three are just common sense, and they are the things every guest looks for from any show. Such is the industry standard that, all too often, they’ll see a show that only meets those first three requirements – but will still leave praising the show to the skies. Proof that, as one of our leading Imagineers recently remarked about his latest project, “If you make it cute enough, people won’t care.”

The last two elements (surprise & emotion) are different… and far more powerful. They are the elements that generate magic. They are the qualities the guests do not expect… do not even know they want. When a show exceeds expectations… when story reigns and the operational side of things is quietly and creatively hidden away… the guest can suspend their disbelief, their cynicism and worldly-wise preconceptions, and experience that hoped-for magic.

Disneyland’s new stage show promises magic; it’s there in the title. And it successfully blends brilliant technical and operational ideas in service to character and premise. There’s just one problem: Premise is not Story.

Strictly speaking, premise = promise… especially when you’re promoting a show or an event. Like the preview of coming attractions that shares the central theme of a new film release… you might decide, based on the premise of a film, that it’s one you wouldn’t dare miss. I daresay we’re all eagerly awaiting the opening weekend of Saving Mr. Banks, Disney’s big screen version of the making of Mary Poppins. I can tell you, I’ll be there opening day – because of the premise.

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But if I rave about the film afterwards, it will be because of the story: the new information, insight, emotional impact and surprises therein. Do they hang together? Do they carry me along, leading me logically from one high point to another? Do I know where and when I am in the scheme of things, so I can enjoy the fact that I’m being swept along in the story with the characters – and with my fellow audience members?

Ironically, I felt lost while watching Mickey and the Magical Map.

The show is driven by Mickey’s desire to join the ranks of the Map Makers… and to paint one unfinished part of the map, a small black dot that plays cat-and-mouse with him between numbers. This action seems to trigger the map’s compass rose – the big, pointy indicator of north, south, east and west – which then sends us sailing off to the four corners of the map. But every time we got where we were going, I wasn’t sure where I was… or why.

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We head ‘east’ first, which puts us in King Louie’s court for a wonderful production number built around, ‘I Wanna Be Like You’. I defy anyone watching this part of the show to not be totally charmed and entertained by Louie and his court – including some great live jazz trumpet!

Next we head ‘west’, for a touching medley that blends the voices of Pocahontas, Mulan, and Rapunzel. Either the Wizard Yen Sid is directionally challenged, or he’s a secret agent working on behalf of the Hackmeister 2000, because throwing these three together in the ‘west’ is rather confusing. But, as Johnny Carson always said, “If you buy the premise, you buy the bit.”

The map then sends us ‘north’… to a sunny Caribbean number from The Little Mermaid. The staging of ‘Under the Sea’ is truly spectacular, with great visuals on the map and some very clever use of props. This is a great song, and one I never tire of hearing… which is a good thing, because Disney never tires of resurrecting it. This time, though, the charming Caribbean dialect is gone and instead we get a white kid with a rather frightening case of crabs… or rather, crab.

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The Sebastian puppet used in this number is a charmless affair that isn’t so much ‘performed’ as simply ‘aimed in our direction’. It is the latest installment in the current trend of ‘memory jogger’ characters. You see these in stage adaptations of animated classics, where the character comes off as a ‘place holder’ for what was a brilliant animated performance in the film. The only real joy one gets from seeing these things comes from remembering what it was you so loved about the original. Anyone who’s ever seen Toy Story, the Musical on a Disney Cruise knows what I’m talking about.

Next we head ‘south’… to Hawaii, of course, for ‘Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride’ from Lilo and Stitch. By this time, I’ve given up trying to make any sense out of the ‘directional’ premise. The number is charming, the dancers’ props are… ‘proppy’…

Suddenly, Yen Sid pops up for a truly touching moment where he spells out the moral of the story – er, premise – and Mickey is made a real Map Maker! Exercising his new powers (and proving he knows the true meaning of ‘south’) Mickey takes us to New Orleans for a finale number from The Princess and the Frog.


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Summing up, I wish the team who selected the premise had worked a little harder on the story. Perhaps by using the knowledge and skills of a great Travel Agent they could have employed the Magical Map in a way that would have made more sense. One that didn’t just entertain, but surprised and moved us with new connections and a unique perspective on the Disney worlds and characters we know and love.

Still, it’s a great medley!

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I’m going to wrap this us up with an anecdote from Floyd Norman’s excellent memoir about his animation career, Animated Life. This is from the chapter on Floyd’s time working as a story man on The Jungle Book:

Walt,” someone sputtered, “What about the story?”

Without hesitation, the Old Maestro puffed his ever-present cigarette and shot back his answer at all of us – and it’s an answer I’ll never forget. “Don’t worry about the story!” Disney shouted in his gruff voice. “Let me worry about the story! Just give me some good stuff!”

I believe Walt would have loved Mickey and the Magical Map, just as I believe the people who produced and perform the show should be very proud of what they have accomplished. Millions of people will be thrilled and enchanted by what they find on the new Fantasyland Theater stage.

Doesn’t mean it couldn’t be better. Doesn’t mean the map couldn’t have been used to chart new territory, make new connections, and thereby engage our feelings and imaginations even more than it does… sending us sailing along on the wings of story to a place beyond our expectations.

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