Concepts in Imagineering: “The Sultan’s Elephant”

Posted by

“Concepts in Imagineering” (CII) is a special series of posts about entertainment and creative concepts from around the world. They posit that the tradition of Imagineers using innovative, creative and scientific concepts to enhance yesterday’s theme parks is just as feasible for today’s Imagineers. If they just look in the right places. Today’s CII is:

The Sultan’s Elephant

The little girl giant from “The Sultan’s Elephant”. Performed by the french street performers, Royal de Luxe

As near as my research can ascertain, “The Sultan’s Elephant’ is a Jules Verne or Jules Verne-esque storyline about a sultan being driven mad by the visions of a time traveling elephant and a giant wooden girl. Throw in an genuine time-traveling elephant and giant wooden girl and a mad scientist for good measure, and you have a fanciful tale of myth and wonder from which talented engineers can draw inspiration from.
You can find countless home video of this event taken by awe struck tourists at Google Video and YouTube, not to mention the official website, where you can find pictures and info on the talented street group, Royal de Luxe, themselves. But today’s blog is less focused on the details of those events, but on the practicality and execution of the event in routine environment and its possible incorporation, or modification, into an attraction that could fit the unique mold of a daily theme park attraction.
Four newspapers were distributed during the Central London performance on May 2006, over the course of four days, which tell the tale of a Sultan being driven insane by the visions of a time-traveling pachyderm and a wooden giant doll. “The Jules VERNE” recounts that tale, but it’s the live-action recreation of this tale that is the real spectacle.

“The Jules VERNE” was handed out each day throughout the course of May 4th – 7th to set the tone for the tale being vividly presented those same days
Words cannot truly do justice to this magnificent performance, which is one of the most wondrous combinations of technology, puppetry and artistry that I have ever seen. The massive time-traveling elephant is a beast to behold. Near the size of an ancient Mammoth, the beast roamed the streets of London for four days, resplendent with 19th century architectural finishings and Moroccan style belly dancers.
And yet, the most entrancing element of this show was not the great temporal traversing pachyderm, but the the relatively small by comparison, little girl giant. Her every move is that of a gentle little child. Her eyes never stop taking in her environment. Her gestures are slow and ginger. When she looks at you, her eyes lock with yours with a knowing acknowledgment that is just too real for something of such grand proportions. There are moments where this “little” girl, is simply frightening in her realism.
And yet, she and the elephant violate some of the elements that are commonly thought by those in the themed industry to be “bad show”. The huge crane, the brightly dressed operators and their overt exertion at operating the girls massive walk. Exposed mechanization, operators hanging from trellises and and the occasional appearance of the brand name “HERTZ” should have all put a great mar on the performance based on preconceived notions of showmanship. If everything we know about entertaining the public is true, then these obvious appearances of “Bad Show” should have completely detracted from the elements that the entertainers and engineers wanted us to see. So why doesn’t it?
Reasons abound. For one thing, this is a grand spectacle, the likes of which few people have ever seen or ever will see. As such, the spectacle of the event can override any “showing slips” that are part and parcel of such a unique performance. After all, what can we truly compare this too, to say that those elements could/should have been concealed?
Another reasoning, also supported by its uniqueness, is the possibility that it may have never been the designers intentions to conceal any of those elements. Perhaps, they wanted us to see the “man behind the curtain”. That it was their intention, as part of their original design, to let us see the works and gizmos to create a sense of pageantry, or an added sense of surrealism. It would be interesting if this were true, because it calls into question our own sensibilities over what is and isn’t “Bad Show”. Considering that we often only think in terms of what can be executed without showing any of the workings, are we, perhaps, limiting our potential with this particular philosophy? Could we, whether you be an Imagineer or simply a dreamer such as I, be stymieing our concepts and ideas with a tenet that has clearly been proven to not be true in all cases?

I, for one, am calling my preconceived notions into question. As much as I respect and believe in the principles that Walt Disney and his Imagineers held fast to, I’m presented with the notion, that Walt is not all there is. Now don’t get me wrong. Walt’s business sense is second to none. But it may be that if want to move attraction design and concepts into the future that he so idealistically talked about, then we must be willing to reexamine some of those same principles in context with what we’re trying to accomplish and with the times. In that way, we can conceive ideas that stretch beyond our comfort zone, and into ideas that, when completed, make people the world over gasp at it’s wonder. I believe this is what Walt did, at its core.
I’m no engineer of course. But viewing the many vids and pictures of this performance has left me wondering what the practical applications of this are in a themed environment. Imagine the living doll ambling down the streets of the Magic Kingdom or even World Showcase. How perfectly she would fit in with one of those or a pre-existing storyline. The basic concept can certainly been expanded as time and technology advance. Even to the point where something clearly as complex and expensive as this could be executed on a daily basis. This wold be the parade to end all parades, if it could be incorporated into a themed park show. I think we’ve exhausted the performance of the cast member in the big headed cartoon suit, ad nauseum. Not to mention, our floats are impressive, but hardly jaw dropping. Entertaining? Yes. But they do not inspires the sharp inhalations of breath from it’s audiences that they once did. It’s time to take some bolder, and admittedly, more expensive steps in a new direction.

I wont bore you with the details of how I would personally work a Sultan’s Elephant-type show into my them park visions, but I do believe that the option should be presented, if it has not already been seeded in the minds of those who have the power to do something about in the here and now. I don’t care if I don’t get to do it first. I only believe that it should be done.

Liked it? Take a second to support Digital Jedi on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Leave a Reply