LONDON The 2012 Olympics officially began Friday night with a visual feast a jaw-dropping, confounding, surreal and spectacular show of almost four hours that was its opening ceremony.
Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle spent $42 million trying to squeeze all of British history, pop music and culture into one evening, and for the most part his show was a resounding success even when it didnt make a lot of sense.
It ended at 12:45 a.m. in London after seven young British athletes lit a torch that had been hidden in plain sight. Paul McCartney then wrapped it up with Hey Jude, letting the stadium joyously serenade itself with the Na-na-na-na chorus.
With inspired pre-filmed bits like the one with James Bond and the Queen (yes, the real Queen Elizabeth II, playing herself) to live action sequences where a horde of Mary Poppinses flew in on umbrellas to vanquish a group of nightmarish villains from childrens literature, this opening ceremony was rarely understated.
But thats OK they arent supposed to be. While in magnitude it was not to the scale of the overwhelming opening ceremony China showcased in Beijing four years ago, this lid-lifter did have something that one lacked: a sense of humor.
There was one scene Friday where the Chariots of Fire theme was being played on the field by an symphony orchestra dressed to the nines only to be interrupted by British comedian Rowan Atkinson, dressed as his Mr. Bean character. A dream sequence ensued, with Mr. Bean tripping another sprinter in the famous running on the beach scene to win the race.
A lot of it was just plain fun, as the British showed again that they know how to do theater like no one else. The torch lighting was a bit anti-climactic seven no-name athletes as the finale? but there was little else to quibble about.
Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling made a rare public appearance and read the opening paragraph of J.M. Barries classic Peter Pan. Kenneth Branagh showed up to quote Shakespeare. The British royals were there, of course (the clever film sequence with 007 made it seem like Her Majesty had actually parachuted into the stadium). Bird-bikes flitted around, ghostly and ethereal.
And while no one could have possibly caught every reference Boyle tried to shoehorn in the ceremony involved 40 sheep and seven belching smokestacks rising from the floor, though fortunately not at the same time thats what a feast is.
Youre not going to eat everything. But youre going to find something you like and go away full.
The 80,000 in the Olympic stadium who paid as much as $3,100 and as little as $31 for their tickets seemed happy. And the hundreds of on-stage volunteers did yeomans work there were 284 rehearsals all told for the production.
The parade of athletes was too long, of course. Theres no helping that. It always is. The British subtly tried to speed the athletes up by playing the accompanying music at 120 beats per minute for their lap around the stadium, but it didnt work.
The United States entered toward the end with its controversial Made In China uniforms by Ralph Lauren, drawing large cheers from a crowd that included Michelle Obama. Great Britain was the final country to enter, as it tradition for the host.
By then it was midnight London time, which was when the ceremony was scheduled to end. But still to come was more pomp and circumstance. Muhammad Ali turned up late in the opening ceremony as a flag bearer, looking frail and determined.
The torch got lit. McCartney sang. He sounded a little hoarse, but he is 70 years old, after all.
And the Olympics officially began.