Why Mickey’s PhilharMagic Works so Well When It Really Shouldn’t

Suppose you were browsing your favorite Disney fan site when you came across the following press release from Disney:

“We’re proud to announce a new 3D movie experience coming to Fantasyland!  Join fan favorites Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck as they host a series of clips from some of your favorite songs from your favorite Disney movies from your favorite previous decades!  Thrill to the fact that these same clips you’ve seen over and over and over again will now be in 4D, which means 3D plus we squirt water at you!  Revel in your four-year-old recognizing characters that he or she has seen on television at some point!  It’s called Mickey’s PhilharMagic – bringing the Disney Sing-along VHS to a whole new level!”

If you were a serious Disney curmudgeon such as me, you would probably roll your eyes at this.  You might even sigh histrionically.  “Again, Disney, with the characters and the franchises and the book-report attractions?” you might ask.  “When we are going to see something new, exciting, and actually, you know, creative?”

Given the basic premise, you might be shocked to discover that Mickey’s PhilharMagic turned out to be one of the most effective and charming attractions Disney created after the boom times of the 90’s.  For me personally, this 3D show is one of the most consistently appealing things-to-do in the Magic Kingdom – I’ve done it over and over again and it never gets old.  As they say in YouTube comments, this show hits me right “in the feels.”  It works very well, which is odd because, given what it is, it ought to be another bland excursion into cynical franchise mining, such as Ariel’s Undersea Adventure or The Seas with Nemo and Friends.  And yet… it’s not.  How could this be?

I think the answer can be summed up in two magical words: “Donald Duck.”

3D movies are typically not known for their intricate and involved storylines, and that’s totally fine.  Impressionistic, special-effects-focused series of images like “Magic Journeys” get the job done well enough.  But if you were going to try to tell a story using traditional storytelling values in a theme park attraction, a 3D movie would work pretty well as a medium, because, unlike a dark ride, you have plenty of time and control of visual space to tell a good story effectively (or to tell “Captain EO,” whichever you prefer).

Mickey’s PhilharMagic is not an intricate story at all, but it uses traditional storytelling values to great effect, mostly by using Donald Duck as a central unifying device.  Unlike the pabulum and inoffensive corporate symbol Mr. Mouse, Donald is still allowed to be cantankerous, obnoxious, foolish, grouchy and ornery.  He’s allowed to have flaws, which make him interesting, relatable, and funny.  If an anvil falls on Mickey’s head or Minnie’s head, it makes us kind of uncomfortable.  If an anvil falls on Donald’s head, however, we laugh it up, because deep down, we sort of feel like he was asking for it. 

This allows Disney to really go for broke on Tex-Avery-style cartoon gags throughout the film.  So now, instead of just dry presentations from the Ashman/Menken hit parade, we’re treated to a series of Donald-centric physical comedy bits.  Ariel singing is nice for the umpteenth time, but watching Donald kiss an electric eel while Ariel blithely ignores his pain brings a new level of enjoyment to a classic scene.

Even without the gags, however, Donald serves other important purposes.  Because Donald is being swept along by magic into these musical numbers, he gets to experience them himself with awe and wonder and his trademark irritability, and we, the audience, consequently get to experience these numbers through his eyes.  In the same way that visiting Disney World is even more amazing when you bring someone along who’s never been before, “You Can Fly” becomes much more magical when we experience it anew through Donald’s eyes.  When he discovers that he can fly, too, we get to a feel a little bit of how he feels.

And then finally, Donald’s quest to recover the magic hat adds a layer of suspense and threat to what might otherwise be a dry musical retelling that’s merely “cute.”  The level of danger is never super intense, as toons can’t die, but there is something a little alarming about Donald getting attacked by living musical instruments and swept away into a magical whirlwind.  It’s just enough threat to keep us invested in what’s going on.  We want Donald to find that hat, and we feel suspense as the hat is repeatedly knocked away from him.  It’s a simple enough device but it works – it feels like a real possibility that Donald may never get that hat back and we may wind up trapped in a never-ending rendition of “I'll Make a Man Out of You.”  (Contrast with “missing” Nemo and “missing” Donald at the Seas and Mexico pavilions – zero real threat, zero real interest.)

As a curmudgeon, it’s really tempting to get upset about Disney’s reliance on franchises and “safe” choices when it comes to expanding Walt Disney World.  It sometimes feels like there will never be a surprise under the Christmas tree.  To me, PhilharMagic proves that even a trumped-up sing along video can be magical and wonderful if it’s done well.  Rather than pushing for original, non-franchise-based attractions, which Disney seems unlikely to do in the near future (or possibly ever), we in the curmudgeon community might want to consider pushing for quality emotional experiences within those franchises.  Quality writing, quality humor, quality storytelling.

It can be done.  Donald Duck can show the way.