When Disney aired an Oscars commercial promoting Pandora: The World of Avatar earlier this year, attention turned toward the Na’vi that appeared at the end of the spot. I originally assumed it was a bit of uncanny valley computer-generated effects work, and then I learned that the creature was actually real — a next-generation audio-animatronic made by the team at Walt Disney Imagineering.
I had the opportunity to see the character, known as the Shaman of Songs, during a press preview of Disney’s new expansion land last week. She’s part of the climactic reveal in the Na’vi River Journey, a family-friendly “dark ride” that takes guests on a river tour through the bioluminescent forest of Pandora. Dark rides, which usher guests through scenic, darkened environments on a fixed track, have been around longer than Disneyland itself, and there’s something soothing about the experience of the Na’vi River Journey. In a land where hardcore immersion is the general focus, it provides a moment of calm — though it’s the kind of attraction visitors will probably want to check out first before things like the breathtaking 3D simulator Flight of Passage sets expectations that will be hard to match.
Viperwolves and other creatures appear as projections
Imagine something like the It’s a Small World attraction, only set in James Cameron’s imagination, and you’ll get a sense of what the Na’vi River Journey is like. Guests board a boat, and then float down the river looking at plants and other creatures featured in Avatar. Things like plants, the twirling fan lizards, and other pieces of foliage are re-created physically, while more active elements — a Na’vi warrior at the start of the ride, or a pair of vicious Viperwolves — appear as projections.
“Each of the vignettes, as you move down the river, tell a different emotional tale,” says production designer Joe Cashman. “You start in the cave, with it being mysterious, and then the next scene is a little bit dangerous. Then the scene with the fan lizards and the animals overhead is whimsical. And then you move on to grandeur, and you keep moving down the river to this celebratory, spiritual experience at the end.”
The moment with the animals overhead that Cashman describes is one of the ride’s most delightful moments. As guests float down the river, vast, semi-translucent leaves shake overhead, with the footprints of tiny animals appearing through the surface of the leaves as the creatures jump and prance about. It’s a wonderfully effective illusion, and one of the most effective ways the ride creates the sense of being inside a place filled with living, breathing creatures. It’s of particular importance when the bulk of the Na’vi presence on the ride is limited to projections of far-off figures marching in the distance.
The evolution of an old-school technology is the undeniable high point
That changes in the final moments of the ride, however, when visitors come face to face with the Shaman of Songs herself. It’s obvious she’s an animatronic, but as the character sways back and forth, tapping drums around her, the sense of weight and presence she conveys with her arms and posture is impressive. In a ride full of new-school technologies, it’s the evolution of an older one that serves as the undeniable high point, something that WDI executive producer Lisa Girolami chalks up to the company’s focus on finding the best way to execute any given illusion.
“Whatever's best to serve that experience, whether it's a 100-year-old magic trick like Pepper's Ghost, or advanced animatronics,” she says. The Shaman is the most sophisticated creation of its kind that Imagineering has ever built, and there’s a direct line connecting Mr. Lincoln in the Hall of Presidents, the characters in Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Na’vi, Girolami explains. “We're just learning upon learning upon learning with that technology, but the key is we don't stop until that technology can't be seen. It should be invisible, so when you see the Shaman she does look lifelike.”
“We don't stop until that technology can't be seen.”
With all the techniques taken together, the experience calls back to classic Disneyland rides, turning the Na’vi River Journey into a familiar touchstone in what is otherwise an aggressively forward-thinking park. (It’s also a ride parents will be able to take their kids on without worry, no doubt a key consideration when Disney was determining what kind of attractions would exist on Pandora.) But because of that it also runs the risk of falling short of expectations. If someone takes a Banshee ride on Flight of Passage, they may be expecting the other attraction to deliver on a similar level. The Na’vi River Journey is actually the inverse of that experience — though walking out of the attraction into the bioluminescent night of Pandora itself delivers a wonderful sense of continuity that’s unique unto this park.
Ultimately, it’s a ride that represents Disney’s past and its IP-driven future, while also serving as a gentle reminder that no matter what cool innovations have come along in the past few decades, the company’s classic rides and techniques have remained that way for a reason. It’s an idea that’s perhaps best summed up by the Shaman of Songs herself. “I can stand there in the middle of the night and look at her,” Girolami says, “and I think she's real. Just because she's so lifelike.”