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Robert Niles

Why 'Impressions de France' is the best movie ever made for a theme park

Published: December 16, 2008 at 11:09 PM

Creating a theme park travelogue must be like taking the history exam from hell.

You've got 20 minutes to tell the entire story of a nation. Blow any details, and an unholy alliance of ethnic activists and theme park fans will bombard the media with complaints, embarrassing your theme park client. Fail to hold your viewers' attention, and the park will close your movie and turn the theater into a holding queue for a souped-up tram ride.

So you play it safe, right? Hire or create an audience-friendly narrator, find some mild conflict to drive the plot (nothing that's spilling blood these days, of course) and commission a hook-laden pop tune for the uplifting finale.

But it never really works. The twenty minutes that most theme park films get simply isn't enough time to tell a nation's story. So you're left with a simplistic, overly earnest work that tries to charm like a puppy in a pet store cage.

Epcot's Impressions de France wins by refusing to play this game. No traveler ever really learns the story of a nation. At best, he or she absorbs a few instructive impressions about the land he or she has visited. And that's what Impressions de France offers -- impressions.

Eiffel Tower in Impressions de France

Impressionism, of course, is France's gift to art. By eschewing narrative for impressionism, director Rick Harper played on France's home turf. And he also created a work that would not grow stale after a few viewings. Effective impressionism reflects the viewer as well as the artist, allowing a work to change and develop in a viewer's eyes over the years, as that viewer brings something different to each encounter with the work.

Even outside the travel genre, theme park films often fail on this account. Lacking the immersive environment of a dark ride, or even a roller coaster, the short films that screen in theme parks too often offer too little to engage a audience after three, five or ten viewings. You've seen Shrek go over the waterfall or Prof. Szalinski's mice crawl over your lap a few times and... meh. What's the wait time for Pirates again?

When I first watched Impressions de France as a perpetually hungry teen-ager more than two decades ago, I couldn't get enough of the marketplace scene, as the kids rushed toward the shelves of pastries and sweets. Today, married and with children of my own, other scenes capture my eye and imagination. I notice the father in the red jacket whom the waiting mother and child wave to as he arrives in the train station. When a newly-married couple emerges from the church in Brittany, my heart soars with hope as the scene melts into a vision of an elderly couple, in the same evening twilight, walking alone atop the cliffs of Normandy. Could it be the same couple, still together after many decades?

All these details, emerging from my impressions, rewarding me with something fresh upon every visit. How can you not love this film?

And the music. Buddy Baker's score envelops Harper's film with luscious French melodies, from Debussey's "Claire de Lune" to Saint Saens' soaring Organ Symphony no. 3. Walt Disney understood the power of classical music, drawing upon it to power works from Fantasia to Sleeping Beauty. Here, Baker extends Disney's vision, selecting the best of French classical works to enliven Harper's engaging visual images.

No, this is a not a complete picture of France. You won't find mention of labor trouble or ethnic conflict here. Its impressions of the nation are not made randomly, but instead draw from moments of France at leisure.

As it should for an audience that is, itself, on vacation.

By ignoring the story of France to share impressions of France, Harper's film scorns the brain to engage the heart. And, with the power of its music, it succeeds.

That is why Impressions de France is the best film ever made for a theme park.

Please visit Theme Park Insider's Impressions de France listing page for a complete list of the classical selections played during the film.

Replies (14)

Rob P

Published: December 17, 2008 at 3:11 AM

As excellent as "Impressions of France" is.........and it is extremely good. No doubting that.But it's still the "China" movie that rocks my particular boat.
Perhaps it's the subject matter that's influencing my judgement. The diversity of landscapes and the immense scope of China is so jaw droppingly breathtaking.It's enlightening too because I'm sure that many viewers would previously had no concept of that Country's enormity.
But it's not just that. It's very well presented too. The photography is of such high quality that it makes you feel like you're there and it's well paced too.

"Impressions of France" is excellent but "Reflections of China" is better.

Bill Sullivan

Published: December 17, 2008 at 5:27 AM

My wife and I loved the movie so much in 2005 (I've seen it a few times before) that we thought about going to France almost right away. We finally made it this year last month! You're right about the film's score, simply perfect. I even showed my friends and family our trip pics with that music playing in the background.
Anthony Murphy

Published: December 17, 2008 at 9:25 AM

I agree China is better. I used to HATE France and really did not get it until I got to Jr year in high school. I think that the point of the movies are to give information about the country and make you want to come. France really does not do it for me, but does peak my interest. After going to France over last summer, I will say I enjoy the movie even more. I think the problem is that there is very little perpective so you need to know a little bit what you are looking at.

Though the music is breathtaking and probably the real star of the movie.

I am not trying to hate on Impressions de France. I like it alot, but I am more of a Reflections of China.

Mark Freedman

Published: December 17, 2008 at 10:54 AM

Of the four country movies at EPCOT, France is definitely at the top my list; the inspirational subtlety and tranquil musical scoring never gets old. The China movie is a close 2nd; movingly dramatic with outstanding photography but lacks any sense of subtlety; hear we are and hear us roar. The new Canada movie with Martin Short is neither inspirational or dramatic; a disappointing effort that will get dated even faster than the preceding O'Canada. For example, showcasing Canadian celebrities that made it in Hollywood not only makes it immediately dated (e.g. Leslie Nielsen) but seems to reveal an inferiority complex. Finally, the Norway movie is just a flat-footed appendage to the Maelstrom ride and most skip it all together.
Robert Niles

Published: December 17, 2008 at 11:05 AM

Good stuff, everyone. Let's keep it coming: What is your favorite filmed attraction in a theme park, and why?

Talk about the whole package: cinematography, music, narrative, in-theater experience, etc. Remember, CircleVision, IMAX and 4D films count in this discussion, too. Just so long as they're shown in a theme park.

Joshua Counsil

Published: December 17, 2008 at 11:48 AM

Mark - couldn't agree more about the Canadian celebrities. It does imply an inferiority complex, although so many of my fellow Canadians feel that way that maybe it's appropriate.

Either way, couldn't agree more, Robert - this is the best film in Epcot and possibly in the industry, though Terminator 2: 3D blows my mind every time, as well (although it cheats by incorporating live action). It's Tough to be a Bug is great, too.

Robert Niles

Published: December 17, 2008 at 12:04 PM

Terminator is interesting, and gets me wondering about the physiology of how the brain processes 3D. I love Spider-Man, and find its imagery crisp, but Terminator's always seemed, well, a bit fuzzy to me.

I suppose that prints and projection could explain that. But I've also wondered if part of the reason might be that Spider-Man is primarily live action, with 3D elements added in, and Terminator is primarily a 3D screen, with some live action elements in a lesser role. I wonder if my eyes can process the the first arrangement better than the second. Don't know enough about how the eyes and brain work to say for certain, but I've wondered about it.

Anyway, Terminator, like Shrek, is a movie I loved the first time I saw it, and about the next 10 times. Then, well... meh. I guess I'm over it. Yet I've seen "Impressions" about, what, 30 times? And never gotten tired of it.

James Rao

Published: December 17, 2008 at 4:30 PM

Maybe IMPRESSIONS grows on you with repeated viewings, but it left little "impression" on me after I saw it in 2007. Yeah, it was nice, but nothing spectacular. After all this commentary though, I am doubly interested in viewing the attraction again when I go back to the World in 2010. Maybe I just wasn't paying attention?

Honestly, the theme park film I like best is Mickey's Philharmagic. I never tire of it with repeated viewings and it always brings a smile to my face. However, if we are including Spider-Man at IOA in the mix, then it gets my vote hands down just because the thrill factor exceeds anything offered at the other attractions mentioned.

Robert Niles

Published: December 17, 2008 at 4:52 PM

I wouldn't include Spider-Man in this discussion. I mentioned it only as an example of the use of the 3D technology in an attraction. It's clearly more a dark ride.
James Rao

Published: December 17, 2008 at 5:23 PM

Fair enough, then Philharmagic gets my vote.
TH Creative

Published: December 17, 2008 at 6:25 PM

Mr. Niles,

A comment and a question.

The Comment: I posted the following under the blog related to the question "What is the best theme park travel film?"

From TH Creative on December 13, 2008 at 3:54 PM: My fave is still 'Impressions de France' -- if only because of its sound track.

My question: Does it scare you to find out that you and I have similar tastes?


Robert Niles

Published: December 19, 2008 at 12:51 AM

Even the blind squirrel finds a nut now and then, my friend. ;-)

(No comment on who's the blind squirrel, of course! Maybe both of us.)

Bob Rogers

Published: December 18, 2008 at 6:59 PM

Dear Robert:
Thanks for writing about Impressions De France.
I was the Co-Producer of the film.
This was the last film I did before starting BRC Imagination Arts [ ].
At BRC we have created presentations for theme parks, museums, world expos and visitor centers all over the world.
But one’s early work always holds a favored place in the heart. Rick and I are especially proud that Impressions du France came in on time, on budget and on target. It has stood the test of time. It still plays today exactly as it opened in 1982.
Thank you again for calling attention to it in your article.
Bob Rogers,
Co-Producer of Impressions de France
Founder and CEO of BRC Imagination Arts
Robert Niles

Published: December 19, 2008 at 1:32 PM

Thank you, Bob, for stopping by and updating the listing page for Impressions de France.

And, thank you, of course, for helping make such a delightful film.

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