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London Olympics opening ceremony packs spectacular emotional punch

The Olympic rings assemble above the stadium in a scene depicting the Industrial Revolution during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games.
(Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images)
Los Angeles Times Television Critic

Although unquestionably a sporting event, the Olympic Games, whose 30th summer edition officially got underway with a remarkable opening ceremony in London on Friday night, is also a kind of theater -- an unscripted performance on the theme of athletics as much as it is an athletic contest. It draws viewers who otherwise might spend no time thinking about such things and weaves them in with narratives of individual excellence, hardship overcome and global unity (within a framework of global competition) that are difficult to resist.

This quality has been amplified in recent years by the growing size and spectacle of the opening and closing ceremonies that frame the Games. These can waver between magic and kitsch, between austere beauty and manipulative sentiment, but there is nothing on Earth to match them in scale or reach. They make a Super Bowl halftime show look like a campfire sing-along.

And as theater, these ceremonies are also a kind of sport, with each successive host nation striving to outdo the last. The bar had been set high, notably in Beijing in 2008 with the astonishing precision of its performing masses, but there was also Athens in 2004 (cool, beautiful, stately) and Sydney in 2000 (warm, fanciful).

PHOTOS: London Olympics opening ceremony

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For many years, the parade of competing athletes was the spectacle -- thematically, it’s still the heart of the show, a many-colored cavalcade of gorgeous humanity that stays unchanging within the Games’ changing contexts -- with perhaps a brief, proud display of folkloric arts to let you know where you were. Now, without losing its inspirational glow, it has become a kind of breather between the high-tech wonders of the first act and the final uplift of the oath-taking, flag-raising, torch-lighting finale. There are no official judges to score these performances, but legions who watch worldwide will all have something to say about them, to their friends and neighbors.

Titled “Isles of Wonder” and conceived by Danny Boyle, the director of “Trainspotting” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” Friday’s ceremony was by turns moving, bizarre, funny and exciting, and often surprisingly dark; certainly it was never dull. It had at times a quality of seeming completely random even as one suspected that repeated viewings would reveal all sorts of connections and echoes and interior rhymes.

If there is a through-line to be untangled from its $42-million, cast-of-thousands, higgledy-piggledy progress through modern Britain, with industrial revolutionary Isambard Brunel (played by Kenneth Branagh, quoting Shakespeare) at one end and World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee (as himself) at the other, it might be something like, “Sorry for the unintended consequences, but we did give you steam engines, great pop music and comedy and the roots of social networking. It was ugly there for a while, but we’re all right -- and everybody dance now.”

GRAPHIC: Your Olympics TV-watching guide

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“I hope it will reveal how peculiar and contrary we are,” Boyle had said, “and how there’s also, I hope, a warmth about us.” It was an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sort of event, and I may have just blinked and missed the sink. There were certain surefire things (singing children, beloved oldsters). Renditions of William Blake’s “Jerusalem” and “God Save the Queen” (not the Sex Pistols song, though there was a long taste of “Pretty Vacant”) were both a given, but Dizzee Rascal and the Arctic Monkeys were not.

Certainly I would not have expected to see the rural idyll of the initial set -- with real soil and real grass, maypole dancers and cricket players -- destroyed, to a clamor of drums (led by the deaf Scots percussionist Evelyn Glennie), by the appurtenances of Blake’s “dark satanic mills,” as towering factory chimneys rose from the stadium floor, belching real smoke.

But these, too, were swept away in turn. There was J.K. Rowling reading from “Peter Pan”; Mike Oldfield playing “Tubular Bells”; the staff of the Great Ormond Hospital (and some of its patients) in a tribute to the beleaguered National Health Service; villains and monsters from children’s books vanquished by a fleet of Mary Poppinses, descending from the sky like D-Day paratroopers, but with umbrellas; Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean in a “Chariots of Fire” routine; and a long musical trip through time into which Boyle managed to insert a bit of romantic comedy.

There were nods to West Indian immigration and women’s suffrage. “Pearly” musicians and winged cyclists. Quiet moments to honor the departed; a river of “molten metal” forging five giant rings, which ascended into the air to form the Olympic logo; David Beckham in a speedboat on the Thames, driving the torch from City Hall to the Olympic Park; and a short film in which Daniel Craig, as James Bond, goes to fetch the queen -- the real, actual Queen Elizabeth II of England (“Good evening, Mr. Bond,” she said), just off her own torch-like tour of the country to mark her latest jubilee -- who was seen to seem to parachute into the Olympic stadium. I really could not have expected that.

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Finally, after the oaths were taken and the torch lit -- a lovely combination of 204 torches, actually, one for each participating nation -- there was Paul McCartney, as there will always finally be Paul McCartney. When the world ends, he will be there, fit as ever, for a last 50 choruses of “Hey Jude.” (“OK now,” Sir Paul said, turning it over to the crowd, “just the men, just the fellas.… OK now, just the women, just the girls.”)

And then it was over, with a closing ceremony to come. In between there will be sports.

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