Monday, August 15, 2011

Harper and The Old Mill

Let's return to the Magic Kingdom, where there's a subtle "two-for-one" hidden tribute to Disney. Tom Sawyer Island is an adventurous place for fun and excitement, serving as a time-machine to whisk you back to another era. The Island opened in May, 1973 and the main attractions on Tom Sawyer Island are the mysterious caves and Fort Langhorn. However, one very distinctive bright red building is Harper's Mill, which is quite appropriate given that water mills dotted the landscape in the pre-electrical era. You might think that its name pays tribute to perhaps Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, a town that played a pivotal role in American history. The name “Harper” comes several sources. Tom Sawyer’s good friend was Joe Harper, so this name makes sense, keeping with the theme of the island. But it's also named after Disney Imagineer and Disney Legend Harper Goff. Goff is famous for his design work on the classic Disney attraction the Jungle Cruise, as well as his work on the film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The Disney tributes don’t stop here, however. Inside Harper’s Mill is a subtle tribute to one of Disney’s earlier animation efforts. Before Disney delved into feature-length animation, the company was famous for cartoon shorts. Mickey Mouse, of course, was an original star but Disney had another impressive series of animated shorts, culled together as the Silly Symphonies. Although they didn’t feature any particular character, they were increasingly used as an animation “testing ground” for techniques and styles, much like Pixar’s use of animated shorts. In 1937, Disney released The Old Mill, a story about how animals now occupy an abandoned windmill. Dave Smith, the recently retired Walt Disney Company archivist, lists this as one of his favorite animations. Disney used a groundbreaking technique of a multiplane camera, allowing for a rich depth to the scenery. This method would again be used to great acclaim in Disney’s first feature-length animation effort, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

One key scene in The Old Mill features a bluebird atop her nest inside one of the cogwheels of the defunct mill. During a thunderstorm, the mill springs to life and as the blades turn, the gears inside move as well. It looks like the bluebird will be crushed, but fate intervenes. The opposing gear is missing a cog and the two gears pass by gracefully at the exact location of the bird.

Why is this scene significant? Because inside Harper's Mill there is a series of gears, and resting inside one of them is a little bluebird atop her nest!

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