Having read quite a bit about Walt Disney, I may be seeing this recent Disney film with tinted glasses. I remember being inspired by the stories that Disney put on film and on TV in a myriad of ways back in the 1960’s, when I was inspired by the stories and the music to write my own stories and to learn to play the songs. I didn’t take my inspiration for my love of science from Disney (directly); it was the space program that grabbed me and made me want to learn. Yeah, I was one of those kids who wanted to be an astronaut. I dreamed about traveling to the Moon or to Mars, or to even more distant places. My interest was fed by writers like Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke (the so-called Big Three) and by Charlton Heston movies like THE OMEGA MAN and PLANET OF THE APES.
It wasn’t till I started to study Disney that I realized how interested he was in the space program himself — and in scientific advancement! He made promotional films for NASA to help generate popular support for the project to put a man on the Moon, and in his parks was this area he called “Tomorrowland.” Tomorrowland celebrated the future by promoting the achievements of corporations in that direction. It had exhibits like “The House of Tomorrow” and a futuristic “People Mover” and its retrospective tribute to technology, “Carousel of Progress.” I didn’t know about these things till relatively recently because I didn’t go to Disney World until 1975, and then as a member of my high school band who was less concerned with appreciating what I was seeing than with the existence of high school girls from other band programs in other parts of the country.
So what’s all that have to do with TOMORROWLAND, the movie? I believe there is something of Walt Disney’s persona in this film. And that something is “Optimism.” Walt Disney was a futurist, according to Ray Bradbury. A forward-thinking man who had his eyes on solving the problems of the world with technology, through corporations.
The movie isn’t as focused on corporations as agents for positive change, but it has the same optimism about the future that Walt had. If I understood correctly, the story is that scientists figured out how to access an alternate dimension of reality and then proceeded to create a world where science was king — where just about anything was possible. (Sort of goes with Walt’s old “If you can dream it, you can do it” mentality.) In fact, the film starts with a boy inventor traveling to the World’s Fair that Disney used as a testing ground for so many things that found themselves into his parks, including the aforementioned Carousel of Progress and the “it’s a small world” attraction. (At that fair, for the Illinois exhibit, Walt and company built an audio-animatronic Lincoln that people reported rose and stepped into the audience, shaking people’s hands – of course it did no such thing but, well, that’s how imagination works I guess.) He makes his way to Tomorrowland with the help of a pretty young girl and a pin that she gives him. Cut to the future – our future – where our space program is being dismantled and where pessimism reigns. What’s the best an intelligent young man or woman can hope for in this world? It certainly isn’t the Moon, or Mars.
In the film’s case, the intelligent young person is a high school girl who becomes intrigued by a pin she finds among her belongings after she is released from jail — she was arrested for sabotaging the machines that are destroying the launch platforms at Cape Canaveral. The pin shows her a shining land of science and technology that is beyond her wildest dreams, and she must find it.
The straightforward adventure story that follows is competently written and it plays out in an entertaining manner. But it was the concept behind that adventure — the idea that you can make a difference, that your brain is more powerful than anything else, and that amazing things can be accomplished if our best and brightest put their minds to it — that intrigued me.
And it wasn’t just me. My kids were intrigued by the ideas, by the inspiration that they were able to take from the story. I have smart kids, and we’ve always talked about accomplishing big things through intellect (not in those words, obviously), and they saw in this film something more than an unrealistic adventure story. It’s the same sort of feeling we have when we leave EPCOT or Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom. There’s an enthusiasm after those visits, a feeling that anything IS possible, in fact.
I found a review on a sometimes-Disney site called FutureProbe and I’m going to just quote the end of it:
The lesson our characters should have learned is that Tomorrowland isn’t a place you escape to, it’s something you make wherever you happen to be. The movie shouldn’t have ended with a bunch of robot children setting out to bring people to Tomorrowland, but with them setting out to bring Tomorrowland to the people.
I agree with the sentiment, but I think it’s being nit-picky about the final message. So what if the robots are setting out to bring the best and brightest to Tomorrowland instead of rejoining the real world? In a sense, they are metaphorically doing exactly that – inspiring the young people to create the future instead of accepting it and “gaming the system” for their own benefit. Maybe “Tomorrowland” is MIT or Harvard or University of Illinois for some particular teenager, and maybe it’s going to work for an environmentally aware company. Maybe it’s just getting the best out of yourself instead of coasting.
In any case, I found a lot to like about this movie. I’m not going to argue that it’s the greatest piece of filmmaking ever, but it’s more than an entertaining story, or at least it can be.