Donald Trump, Disney’s Hall of Presidents and the Uncanny Valley

[Even if I wasn’t one of the many Americans horrified by the nation’s current president, I’d agree with the negative assessments of Disney’s new animatronic version. This story from Quartz (which includes tweets, more images and two videos) reviews the long history of the Hall of Presidents attraction and other failed attempts to produce satisfying, realistic replications of the 45 famous men despite the evolution of technology. –Matthew]

Donald Trump and the Hall of Presidents would like to welcome you to your nightmares

By Molly Rubin
December 19, 2017

Yea, though we walk through the shadow of the uncanny valley, we shall fear no presidential robots.

After months of renovations, Disney World on Tuesday (Dec. 19) unveiled the latest addition to its Hall of Presidents: a terrifying version of the 45th president of the United States, Donald J. Trump.

The unsettling animatronic Trump features the president’s signature hairstyle and low-hanging tie. But there is also something not quite right about the figure, which looks like it was shipped to Disney straight from the Valley of the Uncanny.

Many Twitter users were quick to point out that Disney’s Trump bears a striking resemblance to actor Jon Voight.

New additions to the Hall of Presidents are typically uneventful, non-partisan affairs, but Trump’s inclusion has been plagued by criticism from both sides of the aisle. Renovation delays prompted the right to accuse the Mouse House of being anti-Trump, and the left petitioned against including a speech from a president known for “divisive and hurtful rhetoric.”

In a June blog post, Disney explained that the delay in Trump’s debut was the result of scheduling conflicts around recording the president’s dialogue. The company likewise clarified that Trump’s figure would have a speaking role, as every Hall president has since Bill Clinton’s addition in 1993.

Along with adding Trump, the Hall of Presidents made significant upgrades to its theater, adding a new sound system, lighting, and a high-definition projection system.

An uncanny tradition

Disney’s Hall of Presidents has been a much-beloved (yet lovingly derided) attraction since it opened in Magic Kingdom Park in 1971. It features animatronic versions of all 44 leaders arranged onstage in a 700-seat theater styled to look like Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. The program itself includes a 25-minute movie about American history, the presidential roll call, and a speech from the current president.

Walt Disney and his Imagineers originally produced the show as an homage to President Lincoln for the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair Illinois Pavilion. “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” used an animatronic figure that was created using a copy of a life mask of Lincoln, which gave the 16th president a decidedly macabre and creepy appearance. In a blog post, a visitor to the original exhibit said the attraction “scared the living daylights” out of him.

In the decades since the World’s Fair, creating uncanny versions of US presidents has become something of a time-honored tradition. Barack Obama’s robot was similarly panned when it was first unveiled in 2009, a ghostly Bill Clinton greeted theme park visitors in 1993, and the 44 wax figures auctioned from Gettysburg’s Hall of Presidents earlier this year were downright ghoulish.

New technology, same nightmares

Earlier this year, Disney unveiled a brand new Lincoln that was built using technology originally developed for the marines. The figure was dubbed the “most advanced animatronic ever,” though it’s still a long way away from a Westworld-like representation of humanity.

Designed by Garner Hold Productions, the updated president has 40 unique motions and was built using a proprietary silicon skin that can mimic complex wrinkles. In his review of the new figure, Gizmodo’s Rhett Jones called Lincoln “one of the finest examples of futuristic facial expressions,” and also “extra unnerving.”

If this bizarre Lincoln is the best that current technology has to offer, can an animatronic version of a real person ever truly escape the perils of the Uncanny Valley? As Jones wrote:

It really drives home the way in which we’re watching a very famous dead man come back to life in an age that he just wasn’t built for. The cutting edge of robotics and materials starkly contrast with the visage that is supposed to be forever frozen in copper…Based on this demo, we have to say that the future Hall of Presidents has the potential to be a can’t miss horror show.

In its history of the exhibit, Disney concedes that the idea of lifelike versions of US presidents was perhaps “too ambitious for the technology of the time,” and the original figures “didn’t quite look and act as Walt Disney had originally envisioned.”

With its latest addition, it seems the Hall of Presidents is still a long way off from that vision. You can watch the new speech from animatronic Trump and decide for yourself.


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