Princesses versus villains. It’s a classic conflict in Disney animated movies.
And while there are plenty of variations within those groups, be it “Frozen’s” comfortably independent Elsa or “The Little Mermaid’s” entitled power broker Ursula, they usually fall into two camps: good and evil.
Perhaps there’s room for some middle ground? Meet Shelley Marie.
She’s something of an anti-princess. That is, she’s a regular kid, a preteen whose idols aren’t the privileged class but the outsize personalities that make up some of Disney’s most warped characters. Give her the shape-shifting abilities of Maleficent, the spellbinding prowess of the Evil Queen from “Snow White” or the charisma of Dr. Facilier (the Shadow Man) from “The Princess and the Frog.” Shelley Marie is also that rare original character created not for a movie but for a starring role at a Disney theme park.
In “Villainous!,” a Halloween-themed limited run of Disney California Adventure’s popular “World of Color” evening light and water show, the company’s fairy tale crafters are making the case that evil doesn’t have to mean bad. After all, no one is ever always good. Instead, the young Shelley Marie -- her name a play on “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley -- is a celebration of the individual, and an acknowledgment from the happily-ever-after factory that “normal” isn’t one size fits all.
Shelley Marie, whose fashion aesthetic is a mash-up of Wednesday Addams from “The Addams Family” and Lydia from “Beetlejuice,” but with fewer goth overtures and bolder colors, is the creation of celebrated Disney animator Eric Goldberg. His credits include “Hercules,” “The Princess and the Frog” and “Moana,” though he’s best known in Disney circles for bringing to life Genie from “Aladdin.”
Goldberg studied the work of Wednesday and Lydia architects Charles Addams and Tim Burton, and said he initially went dark with Marie but had to gradually bring her back to the light. This is, after all, a 20-some-minute water-based projection show at a theme park.
“The nice thing about Shelley is she’s also a caricature,” Goldberg says after a “Villainous!” rehearsal last week in a nearly empty California Adventure near 1 a.m. The show premieres Sept. 17 as part of an up-charge event that will run through Halloween and is currently nearing completion. Though Marie won’t speak, Disney is planning to add some vocal inflections to her exaggerated facial expressions -- a roll of the eyes, for instance, when a villain tries to spook her.
“She has the vulnerabilities of a little girl, but she’s got this side to her,” Goldberg says, alluding to her interest in the darker, weirder aspects of culture. “I think characters like that are very interesting. It puts me in the mind of Lilo from ‘Lilo & Stich.’ She’s an adorable character but can’t help herself from acting out. Shelley is like that. She doesn’t do anything wantonly evil, but she has this thing pulsing in her DNA.”
Goldberg worked closely with Steve Davison, who in nearly four decades with the company has helped lead numerous evening shows, including the original “World of Color,” and was also instrumental in creating the holiday season makeover of the Haunted Mansion themed to “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
“It was originally called ‘Terribly Twisted Tales,’” says Davison of the evolution of the new show, “and it was this very avant-garde piece and it was too weighted in a genre that didn’t work.”
Though California Adventure is considered a bit more grown-up compared to its next-door neighbor Disneyland, in part, no doubt, due to the presence of alcohol and the gastro pub Lamplight Lounge, it took Davison and his team a long time to make sure the show wasn’t too frightening. “The original ending was very scary,” Davison says. “We had this big battle song and we showed it to the executives and they said, ‘My child would be terrified right now.’”
The end result is a heavily stylized, fast-moving show, which, though it may contain hidden references to evil Disney characters throughout the ages, doesn’t shy from pure silliness, such as the tiny “poor unfortunate souls” from “The Little Mermaid” being turned into a choir of singing creatures who belt lyrics in accelerated falsettos. Animators were given some freedom as well, such as occasionally presenting villains as neon-like apparitions, giving it a nightlife feel that complements that upbeat, dance-focused soundtrack.
Davison says working with Goldberg has been a “master class” in creating a character such as Shelley Marie. “We want her to be accessible and funny and [devious] -- all that stuff little kids can be,” he says. “But accessible is the baseline. I always talk about the goth kid at school. Well, what do they feel? They always get alienated. Everyone’s the same.”
At first glance, it may seem there’s something slightly backward about needing a show themed to Halloween, a holiday known for its ritual of pretending to be someone else, for Disney to unwrap themes of not only being true to your core, but being unafraid to show that to the world. “Villainous!” ultimately becomes a quest for Shelley Marie to find her Halloween costume, and in perhaps the show’s biggest surprise, she decides that what she wants to wear isn’t something that Disney is already selling -- at least not yet.
Yet there are lessons, Goldberg says, in Halloween, namely in better understanding what aspects of our personalities we’re suppressing or embracing.
“I think you could say that Halloween is a way of showing that you can be something different; you can be something off the beaten track, and it’s fine,” Goldberg says. “In fact, celebrate it. All kids have social pressures them. ‘Everyone is wearing this sneaker; I better buy some.’ To have a character say, ‘OK, I have all that stuff around me but I’m still going to be who I am,’ that is really cool.”
Though “Villainous!” is currently slated to run only 20 nights, as part of the ticketed, after-hours Oogie Boogie Bash – A Disney Halloween Party (which replaces the Mickey’s Halloween Party previously held next door at Disneyland), it gave Davison the opportunity to construct a brand-new narrative not specifically tied to a known franchise. Such shows are an endangered theme park species in this era of massive properties.
Past “World of Color” programs have largely been clip-based, aiming to capture an emotion by remixing recognizable scenes from Disney classics. This has become the norm at Disney, with few remaining exceptions, such as the still mostly ballet-like “Rivers of Light” at Florida’s Animal Kingdom. Perhaps that’s why Davison speaks of the project as if it’s something of a favorite child among his many projects.
“I spent a lot of time on this show just because I loved it. Sometimes they’d be like, ‘Why are you spending so much time on a Halloween show?’ Because it has to be right.”
It was also an opportunity for Davison to briefly revisit poignant themes that maybe get overlooked.
“There’s a really great line, and I had forgotten about it,” Davison says. “It’s in ‘The Princess and the Frog,’ and it’s where [Tiana’s] dad says that wishing on a star is only part of it. You have to do some work too. There’s a difference between a wish and the dream. The wish is, ‘Oh, I hope,’ but the dream you have to make a reality.”
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