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What Would Walt Want? ‘Tomorrowland’ Gives Us A Glimpse

In April 1964, the New York World’s Fair opened in Flushing Meadow, Queens, and promised “Peace Through Understanding.” Despite that noble slogan, it was a time of social upheaval, the dawning of what would be known as “The Sixties.” 

Just a few short months after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Civil Rights Movement was reaching a peak through the voices of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The Beatles were the biggest band in the world, and Andy Warhol was blurring the lines between commerce and art. At the Fair itself, conflict arose when the American-Israel Pavilion objected to a mural in the Jordanian Pavilion depicting an Arab refugee child and his mother. The accompanying poem commented on increasing tensions in the Middle East and specifically name-checked “strangers from abroad” who were “buying up land and stirring up the people.”

But the 1964-65 World’s Fair, like its Queens-based predecessor in 1939, also promised hope and a glimpse of the future — courtesy of the U.S.’s brightest corporate sponsors, including General Motors, IBM, Westinghouse, and Disney. The latter’s influence on the Fair was significant. Walt Disney had been approached by Fair organizer Robert Moses to contribute exhibits and rides, and the master showman delivered, big time. 

The “Carousel of Progress” took audiences on a journey through time, from the turn of the century to present day, all while championing the technological innovations conveniently developed by sponsor General Electric. “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln” featured a lifelike Audio-Animatronic version of our 16th President reciting a mash-up of his greatest speeches. “Ford’s Magic Skyway” was an early version of Disney’s innovative and environmentally-friendly PeopleMover system. And “It’s A Small World” was pretty much the same ride that exists today at Disney parks around the world, with scores of dolls singing the Sherman Brothers’ song of global peace.

Credit ©DISNEY
A recreation of the 1964 World's Fair opens TOMORROWLAND.

Disney had been leading up to this moment. Although he had made a name for himself and his company by peddling nostalgia as the kindly Uncle Walt, Disney was also a man passionate about new technology. In the 1950s and early ’60s, he produced a series of television specials on space exploration, atomic power, and other subjects on the frontiers of science. 

And just two years after the opening of the World’s Fair, Walt Disney revealed his plans for EPCOT, a futuristic city free of pollution, traffic, and with its gigantic dome covering the site, presumably fresh air as well. Ray Bradbury, who collaborated with Disney on a number of projects over the years, aptly described him as an “optimistic futurist.” But Walt died in 1966, and with him, his plans for PeopleMovers and robot helpers, let alone an entire Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.

As “The Sixties” wore on and turned into The Seventies, a series of public assassinations, including Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy, plus the escalation of the Vietnam War, beat down the psyche of the American people. Folks even became more blasé about NASA with each successive Apollo mission following the original moon landing. That sense of a brighter future ahead faded away, replaced by the “Me” generation and a Space Shuttle program that felt more like a space bus than anything that aimed for the stars.

It is that spirit of optimism and dreaming big that director Brad Bird and writer Damon Lindelof try to capture in Tomorrowland, a movie based only tangentially on the vaguely futuristic themed land that appears in some form in each of Disney’s Magic Kingdom parks around the world. In Tomorrowland, there’s scarcely any mention of the title, let alone Disneyland, but the movie does open in 1964 at the Disneyfied World’s Fair. 

A young boy, Frank, has an invention he thinks could change the world — or at least inspire others to do so — and travels to Queens to share his work at the Fair. After being shooed away by a dour-faced Hugh Laurie because his jet pack doesn’t work, Frank is pinned by a freckle-faced girl named Athena, who tells him “I’m the future.” He follows her onto the “Small World” ride, where the mysterious “T” pin he now wears on his jacket signals the boat to take a detour, leading him into another dimension full of wondrous structures that look as if Eero Saarinen decided to play a skyscraper-size game of horseshoes with Oscar Niemeyer. It’s a populuxe fan’s wet dream.

Although it isn’t named as such, Frank has landed in Tomorrowland, a fantastic place where the world’s top scientists, artists, and engineers (“Imagineers,” anyone?) can dream, design, and build their wildest ideas. As we’ll find out, the place has been in development since the late 1800s, and Laurie’s character, David Nix, is one of the top guys in charge.

Flash-forward 50 years, and all of those big dreams have been forgotten, both in Tomorrowland as well as in the real world, where young Casey (Britt Robertson) struggles with the draw-down of her father’s project at NASA, as well as with school teachers that seem more interested in how horrible the future is than in doing anything to fix it. When Casey discovers a special “T” pin of her own, she too is transported to Tomorrowland, although it’s only a simulation. Still, she’s sufficiently inspired to want to know more, and she soon finds herself on a road trip with both Athena and an older, grizzlier Frank (George Clooney) to learn why things have gotten so bad and how they might be able to change the world for the better. 

They’re pursued by Audio-Animatronic baddies with gleaming teeth and superhuman strength that are inexplicably willing to obliterate anyone that stands in their way. The zeal with which they’re willing to incinerate folks to keep Casey, Frank and Athena from reaching their goal made me a little uneasy, and isn’t properly explained. These are scenes in Tomorrowland that I felt stretched the violence past the film’s PG rating.

Frank, Casey and Athena eventually do confront Nix, who’s now appointed himself “governor” of Tomorrowland. They try to convince him that the future is still what you make it to be, that it’s not all doom and gloom. Nix won’t have any of it, and in a speech that puts no fine point on it, he holds up a mirror to reveal our own nihilistic tendencies. It’s a great moment, but really not a strong enough one for someone that’s supposed to be the bad guy in this movie. Nix isn’t diabolical, nor is he power-hungry … he’s just arrogant, and thinks you — yes you — are a dope for accepting your fate. So he’s taking this awesome play place that was going to be revealed to the world and keeping it for himself, nyah nyah.

The lack of answers for the many questions the film brings up can be frustrating, and maybe that’s one reason it tanked at the box office earlier this year. What do you expect? Damon Lindelof wrote it, and he’s the one responsible for the similarly mind-boggling Prometheus and much of the TV show Lost, which I willingly bought into with near religious fervor.

But here’s the thing: you shouldn’t let this dissuade you from taking the ride, and neither should Disney, for that matter. Kudos to them for green-lighting a $200 million concept movie in the first place, with only a semi-recognizable name to hang its space helmet on. What the Mouse House should also do is look at the film’s theme of “optimistic futurism” with an eye toward refurbishing the titular lands from which it springs. When Disneyland opened in the 1950s it looked forward to traveling to the Moon and later to Mars. It sported a House of the Future. It added the PeopleMover following the 1964-65 World’s Fair. And when EPCOT Center opened in 1982, many of its signature attractions, Journey Into Imagination, Horizons (opened 1983), The Land, and Universe of Energy, all dreamed big.

I visited Walt Disney World with my family this summer, and while I still had a ball, I felt that many of the attractions in Tomorrowland and Epcot have either strayed from the original intent of the lands, or are in serious need of an update. The Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland features a Monsters, Inc. comedy show (admittedly very funny), the classic PeopleMover and Carousel of Progress attractions (the latter being a great place for a nap, apparently, as I saw about a half-dozen people dozing off inside), and vaguely “space” related attractions like Stitch’s Great Escape and Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin. 

None of them are rooted in the real world the way Mission To Marsonce was. Just imagine what could happen if NASA teamed up with Disney to create a new attraction based on deep space exploration.

Credit Nathan Cone / TPR
Spaceship Earth at Epcot

At Epcot, Mission: SPACE fulfills a little of the promise that Mission To Mars did, but other pavilions at the park are in need of a facelift. The Universe of Energy pavilion features a film starring Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Jamie Lee Curtis and Alex Trebek. The movie’s age is given away not only by its outdated information about renewable resources, but by Trebek’s mustache, which hasn’t been a regular feature of the host since 2001. And as much as I love Michael Jackson’s music, continuing to show “Captain EO” at the Imagination pavilion demonstrates just how much portions of the park are stuck in the past.

In the years after Walt Disney’s death in 1966, folks at the company would often ask themselves “What would Walt do?” With Tomorrowland, Brad Bird took a bold step back toward that “great big beautiful tomorrow” the Sherman Brothers wrote about in 1964 when they penned the theme song for the Carousel of Progress at the World’s Fair. 

Even if Bird’s step is a little shaky, it’s still in the right direction. And when it comes to the actual Tomorrowland itself, Disney should keep moving forward. The future is notoriously hard to keep up with because it has this habit of becoming the present. But as Bird told the Los Angeles Times this year, prior to the film’s release, this future is also something we collectively make every day. Dream big!

Tomorrowland is new to Blu-ray, and includes deleted scenes, and behind-the-scenes featurettes. I would have enjoyed a commentary track from Brad Bird.