Disney Illuminations: Good but not great

Disney Illuminations is the new nighttime entertainment spectacular at Disneyland Paris that has replaced Disney Dreams! Whilst the decision to replace Dreams! was met with surprise by fans and guests of the resort, the new show promised new scenes and a story centred around Mickey Mouse – whom for many guests is their favourite character. But does the show live up to expectations?

Following Dreams!

The first thing to note here is that following Disney Dreams! and being considered ‘better’ is a difficult task. Disney Dreams! was a highly successful show partially due to its song selection and films included, but the show also included a lot of emotion. For many, Disney Dreams! was a coming of age show, Disneyland Paris had long been seen as the ugly duckling of the Disney resorts, this was the first show that made others envious.

Disney Dreams! was also a turning point for Disney parks in general, projecting onto the castle was novel – no Disney park had done it in quite this way before, Paris was a pioneer. Now almost all Disney Parks do this genre of show and have even extended it down Main Street USA (see Disneyland Forever for the 60th anniversary of Disneyland Resort). Walt Disney World have recently launched Happily Ever After and Shanghai Disneyland opened with Ignite the Dream.

There lies our first issue with Disney Illuminations at Disneyland Paris – it is simply a copy of Ignite the Dream from Shanghai. Where Ignite the Dream had a very clear goal of introducing a Chinese audience (who, generally speaking, do not grow up around Disney stories) to Disney and their franchises, in Europe and particularly in Disneyland Paris we simply do not need this. But this is not the only problem with Disney Illuminations, nor is Disney Illuminations an entirely bad show – there are elements that are simply fantastic. In order to properly examine this show, it is essential to break it down into its parts, and that is what we will do here.

The opening of Disney Illuminations

The Opening Number – A Dream is a wish your heart makes

This sequence is actually very good. The way the castle dissolves is exceptional and the opening music does make it feel as if we are dissolving into a dream scape. A strong beginning with beautiful visuals on the castle as Mickey dives and soars through a floral landscape whilst a very strong version of the classic A dream is a wish your heart makes plays.

This scene is strangely the closest the show gets to being emotional, the music and visuals are very powerful and is spectacular, it offers a lot in the way of promise and builds up excitement. It is evident from this scene that the projection technology has moved on from Dreams! as the castle appears so much more crisp (there is a noticeable difference from the previous show to this) and that, sadly, is why we cannot move back to Dreams! as it once was. Going back to Dreams! would feel like a step backwards in many ways as the technology is so much better now.

The Lion King – Circle of Life & Can you feel the love tonight

Again, a strong opening section as Mickey opens the door to various scenes from the film in a comedic fashion. The beat seems continuous from the initial A Dream is a wish your heart makes making the transition seamless. Our previous show was very careful with its timings, other than the retrospectively added Brave scene, everything moved along at a near-perfect pace. Here, however, the Lion King scene overstays its welcome. There is no doubt that these songs are beautiful, moving even. But in a show that begins with a certain pace, it immediately slows itself down and that is an issue.

Lion King in Disney IlluminationsThe pyrotechnics in these scene create a beautiful environment with a near romantic feel. The issue with this scene is not so much content (although Disneyland Paris have found a series of ‘safe’ franchises that they reuse over and over), but length. The scene is simply too long, luckily it does end before it becomes a ‘boring’ scene but it does drag somewhat.

The Little Mermaid – Part of your world

Arguably the best scene of the show, this scene is beautiful and features some enjoyable graphics on the castle. It’s probably no coincidence that this is the most ‘dreams-like’ of the scenes in the show. What is particularly enjoyable about this scene is that The Little Mermaid gets very little in the way of show inclusion at Disneyland Paris, this scene allows for a beautiful song to be presented in a new way in the park which can only be a good thing.

The Little Mermaid in Disney IlluminationsThis section of the show is a clear highlight of the show as it takes the best from Dreams! and the best of Illuminations’ new technology. If the entire show was like this scene, we’d have potentially a Dreams! beater.

Finding Nemo

The link is clear, two underwater franchises have been linked together and they are both strong segments. The section is simple and again features beautiful music. We then move into a section about the East Australian Current and the music becomes stronger. The issue is that the scene doesn’t really have any impact, it’s enjoyable when watching but once finished it sort of vanishes from memory.

Pirates of the Caribbean

The first of the live action franchises is the Pirates of the Caribbean segment suffers from the same difficulties as the Finding Nemo section. The difference is that this section features a memorable soundtrack that has had some outstanding pyrotechnics attached to it.

However, like all of these live action pieces, it feels like basics have been taken from the films and that Disney are going for what appear to be cheap wins. Rather than making a show that moves and causes emotions to be stirred, they are going for the ‘oh cool, Jack Sparrow’.

Pirates of the Caribbean in Disney IlluminationsNevertheless, this section is enjoyable and calls back somewhat to the Step in Time section from Disney Dreams! proving that Illuminations does the potential to be good overall, but misses the mark.

Beauty and the Beast

This is THE weak link in the show and even causes harm to the show. For this scene Disney have simply taken the trailer to the live action Beauty and the Beast and projected it onto the castle. The issue? The new film is outstanding and features plenty of opportunity to move the audience and provide stunning visuals.

Beauty and the Beast in Disney IlluminationsUnfortunately, this feels like a desperate attempt at marketing and is laughable in its desperation. It simply isn’t good. We know Disneyland Paris is better than this and this scene deserves to be replaced at the earliest opportunity.

Star Wars

Preceded by the most random transition as the balloons from Up float past to reveal Chewbacca and Han Solo. This scene is actually quite cool but completely unnecessary in a resort  that is able to produce a Star Wars show right next door that is vastly superior to this scene.

Nonetheless, this scene is enjoyable and uses all the effects on Central Plaza including the lights in the trees to create a fully immersive environment. It features segments from The Force Awakens and paces them well to provide a fun scene.

Star Wars in Disney Illuminations

Frozen – Let it Go & For the First Time in Forever 

Naturally Frozen is also included (and is another of these franchises that Disneyland Paris considers ‘safe’, but on this occasion it is justified by it still being Disney’s biggest film) and is totally in French. The choice seems natural, a large chunk of the scenes are in English and Frozen itself was presented in English in Dreams!, here the language is used as a differentiator.

Frozen in Disney IlluminationsOnce again, using multiple scenes makes this scene feel like it is dragging on a little but the visuals are once again enjoyable. However, the scene is popular and is always greeted with a gasp and clap for loyal fans.

Finale

The show then once again launches back into the theme song of A Dream is a wish your heart makes and brings back all the stunning visuals from the opening. Like all Disneyland Paris evening shows, this finale is spectacular and blows away audiences. As if to rub in the fact that the show was taken from Shanghai, the lyrics even do include ‘Ignite your magic dream’.

Post-Show

This is the one section of the show I will say surpasses Dreams!, whilst the Cara Dillon outro to Disney Dreams! was enjoyable, this song matched with the new high quality projections on the castle is simply mesmerizing. This section (original to Disneyland Paris) is outstanding and deserves repeat viewings.

Disneyland Paris 25th anniversary castleA mismatch of themes and stories

The issue is not the replacement of an old show, it is what is sandwiched between opening and closing which work when we take them individually (with the exception of Beauty and the Beast but do not make a cohesive whole. This is the big weakness of Illuminations, Dreams! was a journey, it had a story that simply worked and acted as the glue to keep its parts together. Illuminations has no glue and works simply as a showcase, an impressive showcase but a showcase nonetheless.

A downgrade for Disneyland Paris

Dreams! always left guests moved and completely satisfied, Illuminations simply doesn’t., it’s very skippable and that is simply because it has no heart.  That is not to say that it is devoid of quality, as previously mentioned the introduction and finale are strong, as are the Little Mermaid, Lion King and Frozen scenes, but they simply do not work together.

We have been spoiled in recent years by the best night time entertainment that Disney has even produced and whilst it feels unfair to compare a show to another, it is completely necessary where the standard has fallen significantly.

Disneyland Paris is capable of doing better, when big budget entertainment such as this goes as wrong as this it is a problem. You should always be looking to beat what has come before, Dreams! was the benchmark for Illuminations and unfortunately the grade it is given is ‘must do better’.

The magic of enchanting live entertainment

The closure of a much-loved show is a sad occasion. The 31st January 2016 saw tbe definitive closure of Animagique in the Walt Disney Studios Park. The show, which was part of the opening day line-up in March 2002, involved performers, who for several shows a day, performed in a dark-light theatre style. The closure came as little surprise, how often does a show complete a fourteen-year run in a theme park? In fact, the only piece of live entertainment at Disneyland Paris that has run longer can also be found in the Walt Disney Studios Park, Moteurs… Action Stunt Show Spectacular although this show has seen some changes since it was first introduced to the park fourteen-years ago.

Animagique Finale at Disneyland Paris
Animagique Finale at Disneyland Paris

Animagique was a rare thing for a show, it’s long run was not something that impeded it; it never felt old or boring, rather it was show that enchanted audiences on each and every showing. One thing that can always be said about Animagique was that it was extremely rare to participates in a showing with a near-empty theatre, quite the accomplishment for a theme park that runs 365 days per year no matter what the temperature or weather conditions outside. It may have been cold outside but inside it was toasty and warm, the cast members working the show had a smile on their faces and were always willing to welcome you to their theatre where Disney friends were bound to put a large grin on even the sternest face.

Disneyland Paris has a very rich history of shows, so much so that it seems odd now to think that in recent years there was something of a live entertainment drought. Little did we know that plans were being concocted backstage to bring back the shows with a vengeance. Packing into a theatre seems so integral to a Disney trip, of those who have been fortunate to have been a Disneyland Paris fan for several years, who can forget the Mulan: La légende show? The soundtrack featured heavily on Disneyland Paris music collections, and even now hearing the music I can visualise the amazing performers in my head. Another show I have fond memories of is Pocahontas: Le spectacle. In preparing this article, I made a list of all the shows I can recall in Disneyland Paris history and each and every one of them made me smile like a Cheshire Cat. That’s the magic of Disney.

Pocahontas: Le Spectacle at Disneyland Paris
Pocahontas: Le Spectacle at Disneyland Paris ran from 1996 to 1999

Looking to the past is always a useful exercise. We trade memories over social media of our fond times at the resort, and smile as others mention your personal favourites. And yes whilst in recent years there has been a decline in stage productions, there has always been something else to entertain us away from rides and characters. It is here that I mention that, to me, one of the most important teams at Disneyland Paris are the one that adds the little extra sparkle to any day: the live entertainment teams. Disneyland Paris possesses a wide range of seasons, and none more impressive than Swing into Spring, this musical extravaganza will lift the spirits of all who walk through its gates. The resort possesses eight live music groups which perform on a daily basis in the two Disney parks. These groups add much-needed life and musical joy to each area and inspire the desire to return and watch them again at the earliest opportunity. The Jingle Bell Boys and Hall-o-swing orchestra are two of my favourite musical moments that I have experienced in Disneyland Paris, these street and stage bands add seasonal cheer with their musical talents. The point that is being made here is that Disneyland Paris’s live entertainment is fantastic.

Tangled Scene during the Forest of Enchantment
Tangled Scene during the Forest of Enchantment at Disneyland Paris

What is more, there is reason for optimism! Last week, the newest offering from Disneyland Paris The Forest of Enchantment opened its doors in the Chaparral Theatre following in a long line of high-quality entertainment that has taken place in the Cottonwood Creek area of Frontierland. The show is quite simply fantastic, and the return of live singing to a resort is marvellous. In this show, you will not find miming, you won’t find simple gimmicks designed to pull you in to the show. Instead, you will find a piece of live musical theatre worthy of its name as a Disney production. It brings me right back to the simplicity and heart in Animagique in that all the performers seem to be having such fun and the blend of music is near-perfect. The show calls back through the history of the Chaparral Theatre by including tableaux featuring Tarzan and Pocahontas. The show knows exactly what it needs to be, and then goes beyond it. The new beating heart of Frontierland exudes from the Chaparral theatre.

Mickey and the Magician Concept Art
Mickey and the Magician Concept Art

Beyond this, Mickey and the Magician will fill the theatre once occupied by Animagique, replacing this beloved show is a daunting prospect, but one that will be relished by the Disneyland Paris teams. Already a piece of concept art has been released by the resort giving a glimpse of what to expect come July 2016, the Art Deco atelier looks sublime. The show moves away from black light into a more traditional show medium and that is probably for the best. A show in the same vein as Animagique would probably attract comparison posts which would not allow the new show to breathe in its own space. The show will feature, much like the Forest of Enchantment, a range of Disney characters as Mickey must clean up the magician’s atelier. Time and time again, Disneyland Paris proves it that it has some of the best creative minds in Europe. Nervous about the new show? Don’t be, it’s in good hands and I, for one, cannot wait to see what magic they come up with to enchant us with for the next fourteen years!

Go further!

From Pocahontas to The Forest of Enchantment: 20 years of shows of the Chaparral Theatre Stage – Disneyland Paris News

Final curtain for Animagique before the launch of a new show – Disneyland Paris News

All photos in this article are Copyright Disney