LONDON — Remember the 2,008 Confucian drummers at the opening of the Beijing Games? In London, look for a flock of sheep, three cows, two goats and 10 waddling ducks.
Where there were choreographed Chinese philosophers re-enacting the invention of the printing press, expect James Bond in a helicopter. And where dragons lurked in the Bird's Nest stadium, watch out for a Voldemort vs. Mary Poppins smack down inside the glistening new Olympic Park.
Besides the undeniable stamp of British whimsy on a sporting event so often viewed in reverential terms, perhaps the biggest difference at tonight's opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Games will be the Olympic stadium itself. In stark contrast with the monument to millennial greatness that was the Bird's Nest in Beijing, the humbler main venue nestled inside a reclaimed urban wasteland in East London is largely collapsible, with a comparatively tiny permanent core of just 25,000 seats.
As a global audience prepares for nearly three weeks of competition set against the backdrop of one of the world's most recognizable cities, it speaks to the wholly different mission of the London Games: to bring the ponderous, politicized and outsize Olympics back down to Earth.
"I think there is a bit of a responsibility on us to bring these games down to size and return them to a game for athletes, to hand them on in such a condition that other countries elsewhere around the world who have not had the Games thus far feel like they can be comfortable bidding for them," said Hugh Robertson, Britain's Minister for Sports and the Olympics.
"I don't feel they should be exclusively the reserve of global superpowers."
Still, at a stated cost of at least $15 billion — or three times more than envisioned a decade ago — these are hardly the austerity games of London 1948, when visiting athletes were asked to bring their own food to a capital still healing from the Nazi blitz. The 2012 Games come during a renaissance of the only city to host the modern Olympics three times.
This month's inauguration of the 1,016-foot Shard tower, the tallest building in the European Union and fitted with a five-star hotel and $80 million apartments, symbolized London's roaring rise into the playground of choice for Russian oligarchs, Saudi sheiks and American bankers, even as much of the rest of Britain sinks deeper into the doldrums.
And yet, where China went for shock and awe — hosting the most expensive Olympics in history to herald its arrival on the world stage — a Britain locked in recession and fully aware that its grandest days are behind it is trying to do more with less. London's effort is set to be better attended than the Beijing Games while costing nearly half as much.
In London and host cities across Britain, the 10,490 athletes from 205 nations will compete in more temporary stadiums this year than at the last three summer Games combined.
Particularly at the opening and closing ceremonies, this nation will remind the world that while its soldiers may be fighting and dying in Afghanistan, back home, this is still the Green and Pleasant Land of William Blake and Shakespeare, of Cruella de Vil and Captain Hook, of Queen Elizabeth II and music royalty like Paul McCartney.
"We're not the biggest country in the world, and we can't do a China-style Olympics, nor could we do something on the scale of the U.S.," said John Worne, director of strategy at the British Council, Britain's cultural promotion agency. "But I think we can offer a celebration. What you're going to get, generally speaking, is an image of the U.K. as it is, warts and all."
Tonight's eclectic opening ceremonies, bringing together the likes of first lady Michelle Obama, actor Angelina Jolie and soccer star David Beckham, will be in the dangerous hands of Danny Boyle, the British director famed for movies about Scottish heroin addicts (Trainspotting) and a game-show-winning Indian slum dweller (Slumdog Millionaire).
The message? Dorothy, we're not in Beijing anymore.
"Come on, this is Britain. We're not going to do thousands of marching Chinese," said Jon Plowman, executive producer of the BBC show 2012.
"There's just something about the British character that isn't good at getting all excited about something like the Olympics. You have this thing in America of being all gung-ho and saying, 'Oh, this is going to be great,' and, 'Yes, we can.' But we're not like that. We say, 'Well, yes, we might. It rather depends on the weather.' "
MALL EVACUATED: Police say a fire alarm forced authorities to briefly clear the sprawling mall beside the Olympic Park.
The alarms sent hundreds of people into the streets amid wailing alarms a day before the opening ceremony of the Summer Games.
Fears of terrorism have been at the center of preparations for the Olympics, and authorities have twice been forced to deploy troops when security arrangements fell short.
Police allowed shoppers to return after a few minutes. Westfield mall authorities said the alarm was triggered in a restaurant area.