Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

I hear the robot's roar no more

Illustration for article titled I hear the robot's roar no more

In the end, 'twas fire–not beauty–that killed the beast.

And yes, Universal Studios' King Kong could certainly never be accused of beauty: Despite being one of the most sophisticated animatronic figures ever built, Kong was still basically a glorified hand puppet (a fact obvious to all who had the "magic" spoiled for them by 1989's feature-length Nintendo commercial The Wizard). Made of creaky metal bones draped in rubber and dirty felt, stiffly animated with a limited range of motion that only allowed him to shake back and forth while bellowing through a hidden set of subwoofers, Universal's King Kong was the sort of fleeting technological marvel that heralds its own demise–the eight-track of amusement park attractions, if you will. Even the most impressionable of children who came face to face with the beast would have noticed how his jaw barely moved, how his hands were permanently glued to those fake sparking power lines, how the red lights in his eyes blinked on and off like those in the cheapest of state fair haunted houses. It's a safe bet none of the guests on Universal Studios' backlot tour had been scared by their "encounter" with King Kong in nearly 20 years.

Yet of all the things we lost in the fire, the death of King Kong is one that cuts the deepest. The archived videos and films charred into a twisted mass of plastic and celluloid all reportedly had duplicates–and any that didn't, well, they probably weren't worth saving anyway. Early reports that the iconic Back To The Future Clock Tower had been damaged or destroyed were, thankfully, erroneous: Universal recently posted a notice on its website saying "the courthouse on Courthouse Square and half of the buildings facing the square were saved," and the ever-vigilant one-track minds from BTTF.com managed to confirm via the publicity department that the Clock Tower had been taken down to make room for Ghost Whisperer. (Which is clearly the best thing that can ever be said about Ghost Whisperer.) As for the New York street facades where everything from The Sting to The Blues Brothers to Bruce Almighty had been filmed, well, those weren't the originals anyway: They were replicas, built out of the ashes from the 1990 fire started by a pissed-off security guard–in the ironic employ of a company called Burns, Inc.–working on the Sylvester Stallone travesty Oscar. (Which is just another reason to hate Oscar, as if you needed it.)

But until last weekend, King Kong was a survivor, a seven-ton, 30-foot monsterpiece who withstood everything from apathy to arson since his debut in 1986. Upon arrival he was an immediate hit, causing park attendance to jump to more than 4.5 million the year he first roared, and becoming an iconic centerpiece of the park's ad campaign. He was even indirectly responsible for untold billions in Orlando tourism dollars: This article from co-creator and former Disney Imagineer Peter Alexander recounts showing off the studio's nascent creation to Steven Spielberg, who was so impressed with the show that he invited Alexander and his crew over to discuss plans for a possible Back To The Future ride. Spielberg liked Kong so much, in fact, that he raved about it to Universal Studios' Chief Operating Officer Sid Sheinberg, and the director's endorsement–along with the noticeably Kong-influenced jump in tourists, and a longstanding desire to kick Disney's Michael Eisner square in the balls–put the whole plan in motion for Universal Studios Florida, with Kongfrontation as its centerpiece. The Orlando Kong was a more refined version of his L.A. cousin, featuring an exact replica of the Lower East Side (right down to the graffiti), and the famous blasts of "banana breath" that bid guests farewell. Sadly, he was also often more pain than he was worth, closing down for maintenance more than he was operational, and he was finally retired in 2002.

In the interim, of course, the monkey's shine wore off considerably. Compared to the attractions that came in Kong's wake–Jurassic Park: The Ride and Revenge Of The Mummy, specifically–King Kong was as much a dinosaur as the T-rex he battled back on Skull Island; based on a property more than 75 years old, he may as well have been Close Encounters With Mickey Rooney for all his waning cultural relevance. (The 2005 Peter Jackson reboot came too late to help Orlando's Kongfrontation any, and Jackson's slick CGI version only threw the technical limitations of L.A.'s O.G. into unflatteringly stark relief.) And while it's tempting to write off Kong's recent fiery end as no big deal, considering the inevitable passage of time, for me his loss is yet another death blow for one of my favorite things in the world: The art of audio-animatronics.

I'm not sure why I'm so fascinated with pneumatically animated figures. After all, we've already established that the very idea of paintings coming to life gives me the creeps, so ostensibly a talking statue should have me gouging out my eyeballs in terror. But on my own constitutionally mandated trips to the Disney corporation's forced-merriment megaplex, while the kids around me clamored for Space Mountain and the Haunted Mansion, I made a beeline for nerdy things like The Hall Of Presidents or The American Adventure, passive shows built around outmoded technology that promise nothing more than fakey fake fake fake approximations of real life, with a bit of pedantic history thrown in.

But even I know I'm becoming a bit of a relic myself: My most recent trip to EPCOT Center–a pill-fueled, midnight run to Orlando whose rationale I still can't explain–was an utter disappointment, with me wandering around the park bitterly complaining, "Everything's different!" in a needling tone not unlike Dana Carvey's "Grumpy Old Man" character. Gone were the charming, ramshackle wonders of things like the World Of Motion, with its goofy scenes of cavemen designing the wheel and my favorite, an early 1900s tableau of the world's first traffic jam. Even my beloved Journey Into Imagination was ruined, with Figment's old creepy molester pal the Dreamfinder replaced by some impish impostor played by Eric Idle and somehow tied to Honey, I Shrunk The Kids

But most upsetting of all was the loss of my all-time most-cherished "ride," Horizons, and its ridiculously optimistic vision of the future that promised, "If we dream it, we can do it"–demolished, in an appropriately cynical turn of events, after it lost its corporate sponsor.

In its place: A motion simulator called Mission: Space that, to date, has killed two people and put several more in the hospital—something friendly old floating Jules Verne never would have done. The building that used to house World Of Motion, meanwhile, is now Test Track, a General Motors-sponsored thrill ride with zero faux-educational value, targeted as it is at hypercaffeinated kids who automatically turn up their nose at anything that doesn't jiggle their bones. In fact, these days Disney seems to be adding Audio-Animatronics as an afterthought, like the Johnny Depp figures awkwardly wedged into Pirates Of The Caribbean—an annoying bit of historical revision not unlike George Lucas digitally inserting Hayden Christensen into Return Of The Jedi. And more distressingly, theme parks everywhere seem to have followed Disney's lead, scrapping the old, passive entertainment of talking and singing robots in favor of flashy "adventures" aimed at younger audiences with built-in attention deficits. Even lamer, most of these new attractions are just some variation on the 3-D movie, fitted with cars that buck and vibrate to the motion on screen or gussied up with various smoke and mirror tricks that promise to "put you in the action." But once you take off your polarized blinders, all you're left with is a blank silver screen and an ordinary auditorium–not a tangible, handmade creation that's remarkable in and of itself. Not a 30-foot, seven-ton gorilla, anyway.

That move toward digital over analog–the ephemeral over the tactile–is, to me, as distressing as the CGI "revolution" that's turning all of our movies into hollow shells, green-screened to the point of barely existing at all. Sure, computer graphics and 3-D movies and "virtual" roller coasters are slicker, easier to control, and less likely to break down. But much like the post-millennial Star Wars and Indiana Jones (what with its mugging prairie dogs and video game aliens), and the soul-draining sugar crash that is Speed Racer, they're dead on the inside. Behind their flashy exteriors, they have no heart—and thus they're impossible to love. To the Universal Studios heads who are using last weekend's tragedy as an excuse to crow "out with old and in with the new," I say give me an unreliable, creaky, woefully outdated robot puppet any day. I, for one, will mourn the death of the King.