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Case Number 05060: Small Claims Court

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Walt Disney Treasures: Tomorrowland

Disney // 2004 // 240 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // August 25th, 2004

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All Rise...

By the time Judge Mike Pinsky's parents got around to taking him to Tomorrowland, it had been renamed A-Week-Ago-Last-Tuesdayland.

The Charge

"It's a great big beautiful tomorrow, and tomorrow is just a dream away!"—Theme from Progressland (Richard and Robert Sherman)

"The history of mankind is all science fiction."—Ray Bradbury

The Case

There used to be a most curious attraction at Disneyland. The "Monsanto House of the Future" was a walk-through exhibit that proudly boasted that everything inside was made of plastic. Not a single natural material was to be found inside. The story goes that when they tried to tear down the House of the Future to make room for new exhibits in Tomorrowland, the wrecking ball just bounced right off it. They had to hack it apart by hand.

Walt Disney's obsession with technology and the future is so complex and fascinating that I devote an entire chapter to the subject in my book, Future Present: Ethics and/as Science Fiction. For Walt, there was always a delicate balance between artistic production, commercial enterprise, and the infinite horizon of the future. The Disneyland television show even spotlighted Tinkerbell (imagination) flying into a swirling atom (science). As Art Linkletter promised on Disneyland's opening day in 1955, Tomorrowland was "not a stylized dream of the future, but a scientifically planned projection of future techniques by leading space experts and scientists."

But Tomorrowland was also meant to be sold. It was a celebration of the triumph of capitalism and popular culture over yet another frontier. Walt may have gushed, "Tomorrow can be a wonderful age. Our scientists today are opening the doors of the Space Age to achievements which will benefit our children and generation to come. In Tomorrowland, you will actually experience what many of America's foremost men of science and industry predict for the world of tomorrow." What you really experienced in the "Hall of Chemistry," "Rocket to the Moon," and the "Bathroom of Tomorrow" was the sense that space and the atom, the two great mysteries of the 1950s, were new territories to conquer. After all, Disneyland was always about colonialism, from the jungles of Adventureland to the Wild West of Frontierland.

If you will, think of the first three installments of Walt's "Tomorrowland" series for the Disneyland television show as benign propaganda shorts. Their intention is to generate enthusiasm for another project of colonial expansion. The science, while often accurate and detailed, is really almost an afterthought. In this vein, Walt decided that the space science for the Disneyland show needed to seem friendly and simple. Who better to simplify science than someone who knew nothing about it? Walt's shrewd logic pointed him to Ward Kimball, who took charge of the project and created three "Tomorrowland" episodes in rapid succession.

• "Man in Space" (1955)
From Georges Méliès to rare footage of V2 tests, this first "Tomorrowland" installment touts the superiority of rockets. No wonder: Kimball's technical advisors on the "space trilogy" (as well as the entire U.S. space program) were former V2 designers for the Nazis whom we snuck into the country as part of Project Paper Clip. Willy Ley, Heinz Haber, and Werner Von Braun fill us in on the miracles of rocket physics (Thomas Pynchon must have seen this before conceiving Gravity's Rainbow), the effects of outer space on the human body, and even a recoverable winged space shuttle. Von Braun predicts passenger space travel in 10 years. This episode was so popular that Walt trimmed it up for a theatrical release.

• "Man and the Moon" (1955)
Von Braun covers some similar ground here, but there are some fresh animated and live action segments showing the realities of space travel—at least by the standards of '50s science fiction movies. Notice that the animation Disney produced in the 1950s had that simplified and angular design that showed the influence of rival studio UPA on the cartoon industry.

• "Mars and Beyond" (1957)
This is one of the best episodes in the entire Disneyland series. It is also one of the weirdest, beginning with Walt's surreal chat with a robot named Garco. A funny cartoon recounts misguided speculations over the centuries about the planet Mars, including a hilarious parody of '50s alien invasion movies that still runs endlessly in the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater at the Disney Studio Theme Park. In the second half of the episode, serious science takes over, as Kimball and company offer eerie and experimental art to suggest possibilities for Martian life. The Disney crew really pushes itself creatively here, and the results are eye-popping and inventive.

All this enthusiasm about outer space was about to come crashing down. When Sputnik reached orbit in October 1957, America panicked. Suddenly, outer space was not simply a matter of curiosity; it was a Cold War battleground. Listen to all that talk by Werner Von Braun and his pals about the "conquest of space." They knew, having tried to conquer it for Hitler a decade earlier. Space was about colonialism and ideology. And the Soviets had just won the first skirmish.

There is a shift in tone in Disneyland's Tomorrowland offerings at this point. If Disc Two of the Tomorrowland collection is less impressive, it is only because few Disney offerings of the '50s could quite top "Mars and Beyond" for its gung-ho creativity. Instead, unease permeates the series. Indeed, the 1959 theatrical featurette "Eyes in Outer Space" often feels more like ideological damage control. Ostensibly the short talks about weather and satellites, climaxing with speculations about a future weather control system. But look at that title again. To whom do those "eyes" belong? Who is watching you?

"Our Friend the Atom" (1957) is even more unintentionally chilling. After all, what friend makes you sterile and burns off your skin? Dull Dr. Heinz Haber cannot seem to make atomic power quite as fun as rockets. So Walt drops by to promise "atomic projects" afoot at the Disney Studio, including a theme park exhibit (which never happened) and a ballistic missile system aimed at Knott's Berry Farm. Just kidding about that last one. But Disney did later win the right to build a nuclear power plant for the Florida theme park—the company has just judiciously chosen not to exercise it.

To say that the second half of "Our Friend the Atom," in which we learn how radioactive dust helps crops grow bigger and healthier (!), is creepy would be too obvious. Of course, it is easy now to narrow our eyes at Walt's blind devotion to the miracles of science. The '50s were the age of better living through chemistry. Three Mile Island, Love Canal, and Agent Orange would come soon.

But even up until his death in 1966, Walt's futurism was unbridled. The real prize on this latest entry in the Walt Disney Treasures tin sets is the original promotional short created by Walt to plug his ambitious "Florida Project." Created only a few months before his death, this film reveals that the Orlando theme park was meant only as a draw for tourists, which Walt summed up almost dismissively. His real passion was an "ideal" planned community: the original EPCOT. Judging from the tensions brewing in Disney's later Celebration project, we can only wonder how quickly Walt's plan would have turned to chaos. But in 1966, it looked great. Walt envisioned weather control, happy pedestrians, and clean underground service facilities that echo Fritz Lang's Metropolis, or worse, H.G. Wells's Morlocks.

Still, Walt's vision is impressive, and it is a pity that EPCOT could not come to pass as intended, even if just so we could visit. The city's maddeningly inorganic design, a '60s WASP paradise, would have made it terrifying to live in, though. In any case, you can still see the scale model of the original EPCOT in Orlando (on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority ride).

Series host Leonard Maltin rounds out this two-disc Tomorrowland tin set with a handful of extras. Ray Bradbury (Walt's friend and, later, author of the scenario for EPCOT's Spaceship Earth ride) chats about science fiction in the 1950s. Designer Marty Sklar jokes about Walt's EPCOT plans, which he dubs "Waltopia," and explains how the original cityscape evolved into the permanent World's Fair we have today. While a brief Easter egg shows Walt joining the Sherman Brothers for a chorus of "It's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow," followed by a plug for Progressland at the 1964 World's Fair, we are treated to none of Disneyland's Tomorrowland attractions. With all the great footage available of Progressland (redubbed the Carousel of Progress), Mission to Mars, and dozens of other park attractions, I am a little stunned that a DVD calling itself Tomorrowland features nothing from the real Tomorrowland. Hey, Leonard, how about a disc of Disney ride footage in the next wave of Walt Disney Treasures discs? Give us a chance to ride that rocket to the moon once again, and dream of futures that never came to pass.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 95

Special Commendations

• Golden Gavel 2004 Nominee

Perp Profile

Studio: Disney
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• English
Running Time: 240 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• All Ages
• Disney
• Documentary
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Interview with Science Fiction Author Ray Bradbury
• Interview with Imagineer Marty Sklar
• Publicity Gallery
• Behind-the-Scenes Photo Gallery
• Story and Background Art Gallery

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