Sometimes I have to step back and apologize for what I like to call “geek blindness”. I’ll use a term, tweet a thing, or post a link to something that is a bit outside the common knowledge of others. I forget that not everyone within my online social circle has read comic books, reads science fiction,. has worked for a gaming website, etc. So, when I re-tweeted a fellow blogger’s post the other day, I have to admit I was caught off guard by the questions about the term steampunk.
This has been a hot topic as of late due to the upcoming release of the Wii video game Epic Mickey later this year. When this game was originally announced, it was presented to the world late last year in a series of concept art that to many must have seemed bizarrely surreal. Post-apocalyptic visions of some of our favorite Disney attractions presented in a world that looks like its been taken over by bizarre clockwork machinations that were referred to as Beetleworx – creatures formed of discarded and broken animatronics.
As a computer and platform game player and former gaming network staffer, I and others like me were ready to be floored, but at the same time skeptical. The two key reasons for this are that gaming concept art often promises far more than is ever delivered, and, more importantly, things change. To make a long story short, the steampunk aspects of Epic Mickey have been mostly removed from the landscape of the game. There are still the Beetleworx and other clockwork contraptions littered about that Mickey will have to interact with. And of course, a very cool Steamboat Willy game level that was demoed at this year’s E3.
More recently, there was another use of the term steampunk related to Disney with the introduction of something called The Mechanical Kingdom. The premise here is very simple, what if, instead of a Magic Kingdom, there was a kingdom that was driven and rooted in a world of clockwork machinations and Victorian era dress. One where the fab five were still on top. This world was first presented to us by a series of Disney Pins with rumors of a Vinylmation set some time in the future.
So just what then is steampunk? Well for starters its a sub-genre of science fiction & fantasy, and probably the one with the coolest name. Many say it’s roots go back into the 1980s, but the truth is that it goes back much father than that.
The general premise is that widespread use of modern technologies and electricity never came to be, and instead the world uses steam power and other energy sources to power the world (yes even computers). A world where gaslight rules the night and people wear stylized modern versions of Victorian-era clothing. Where the mechanics are made from precious metals like copper, brass, and gold, and often appear overly complex as their clockwork designs of gears, levers, springs, and tubes tend to dominate the task at hand. And flying machines like dirigibles dominate the sky.
Does this sound at all familiar to you? Well if you’ve ever been to Tomorrowland in the Magic Kingdom you’ve seen these very devices strewn about. From the entrance archway for Tomorrowland, to the famed Astro Orbiter (my favorite ride), metallic palm trees, the front of the arcade, and others. Steampunk surround you in Tomorrowland, you just probably never realized these clockwork contraptions all had a common theme to them.
So remember that I mentioned that the origins of steampunk go way back? Well they go so far back that you’d likely need a time machine to find it. Up until recent years Tomorrowland had just such a time machine in The Timekeeper. This attraction took you back to meet the two gentleman who are considered to be the forefathers of the technologies that are considered to be part of the steampunk mythos: Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. And the two robots that took you back in time, Timekeeper and 9-Eye were very clockwork in nature.
Their stories of fabulous lands and stupendous contraptions are the very inspiration for steampunk. Wells described his time machine as, “a thing of brass, ebony, ivory, and translucent glimmering quartz” – it was a calculating machine that pushed one forward and backwards through time. And Verne’s Nautilus, perhaps one of the most iconic of science fiction devices, was described by him as, “a masterpiece containing masterpieces” with a mercury battery that created power through its interaction with sodium extracted from the very seawater that it swam through.
Walt Disney himself recognized the importance of Verne’s work and produced the 1954 film adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In fact, the image of the Nautilus, designed to look like a mechanical version of a narwhal, that most people carry with them today comes from this movie. This visage was also the basis for the ride vehicles for the former Magic Kingdom ride 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage (another ride that shares my birthday).
Steampunk has carried into at least two Disney animated movies. The first of these is Treasure Planet with its very stylish concept of “Treasure Island in space.” It has semi-mechanical ships that sail through space using solar power and solar wind, cyborgs, and a clockwork robot named B.E.N. It is also generally regarded as the better of the two movies when compared to its counterpart Atlantis: The Lost Empire which takes place in the year 1914 and has technologies very similar to those found in Verne’s 20,000 Leagues.
So, as you can see, while steampunk may be a term that’s new to you, it’s not a term that’s new to the Walt Disney Company. And it’s something you’ve very likely seen before. It’s in their theme parks, movies, and merchandise. From a Disney perspective it’s been around for more than 50 years, and considering Epic Mickey and The Mechanical Kingdom there’s no reason that presence won’t continue.
What about you? Were you aware of steampunk before? Had you noticed its presence in the parks? What’s your favorite bit of Disney steampunk?