***Mild spoilers ahead. Please read only after watching the Walt Disney Studios’ film Tomorrowland***
Being a hardcore Disney fan is not always filled with pixie-dusted sunshine and Mickey Mouse kisses. The urge to visit the parks frequently or to keep up with the most current Disney news and rumors are constant endeavors. You might even say the “struggle is real.” Wanting to keep an optimistic outlook on your own hopes and dreams for the propertiess from The Walt Disney Company is certainly a part of being a “pixie duster.”
Another struggle is the inability to fairly critique a Disney movie. In a recent case, critiquing one such movie optimistically was virtually impossible. Frankly, my head is still spinning from trying to decipher the “what” and “why” of a movie with such possibilities.
The movie Tomorrowland was released on May 22, 2015 to great fanfare. The huge build-up to this movie included many innovative studio promotions, such as an alternate reality game (ARG), The Optimist, developed by Walt Disney Imagineering, a tie-in book, phone app and a Pixar short providing much-needed backstory. During D23’s Destination D event in November 2014, Tomorrowland‘s Supervising Art Director Ramsey Avery unleashed a tantalizing clip from the movie that had fans drooling with anticipation. The scene was from the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. Young Frank lugs a big bag around the park grounds and ultimately ends up on “it’s a small world” attraction. The scene was meticulously created with every detail in mind, while also keeping to budget. With Walt Disney and his Imagineers having created four attractions at the New York World’s Fair (and ultimately shaping the future of the Disney Parks), this scene pulled at the heartstrings of all the fans in the room.
In Tomorrowland, we learned that the imagination of dreamers can better the world. A principle that Walt Disney firmly believed. Two of the main characters, Frank and Casey, were two such dreamers. They were trapped in a world crippled by war and a planet dying due to our own disregard for it.
A far-away place called Tomorrowland was their only hope. Tomorrowland, a wondrous utopia, was created by some of the greatest thinkers the world has ever known. Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Jules Verne, and Gustave Eiffel joined forces to become the group known as Plus Ultra, which founded Tomorrowland.
Director/Producer Brad Bird shared this short film on Twitter on April 24, 2015. It describes the origin of Plus Ultra and is a must watch. Not including this short in the film was one of the major faults of the movie for me. For the average movie attendee, knowing to watch the film’s prerequisite backstory is a ridiculous assumption. Bird was later asked why he did not include it in the film. He said, “It’s a great cartoon, and we all loved doing it, but it stopped the movie dead.”
D23 also released a phone app shortly before the 2013 D23 Expo (“Tomorrowland D23”). A treasure trove of the movie’s mythology was released in the “exhibit” section. After rummaging through the app, I can definitely see how the average person might be confused between the true history and theatrical fiction. For instance, the fictional “1952 collection” described a time capsule labeled “1952” that was found in the “morgue” of the Walt Disney Studios. According to the app’s lore, underneath the old Animation building, priceless Disney artwork and stray artifacts have been found, including a Pinocchio marionette, used in the making of the 1940 animated classic. Apparently, the “1952 collection” was full of inspirational futurism pieces for Bird and Producer Damon Lindelof. After reading about the “1952 collection” on the app, I was thoroughly confused about what was reality (the Pinocchio marionette?) and what was created to enhance the experience (the 1952 Box?).
In “City of Tomorrow,” a lesson on Walt Disney’s last great ambition was described. “To build what he called an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow; a dynamic laboratory of the imagination, devoted to cultivating, and showcasing new ideas, new experiences, and new technology; a permanent World’s Fair.” The city of the future was indeed Walt’s last big dream. His “Tomorrowland” would have been shaped by innovation, technology, and imagination. It was no wonder that Walt was obsessed with world’s fairs, a place where those themes were explored and showcased.
So, what about the movie itself? Without giving away too much of the plot, there is certainly a chase in the movie to keep these futuristic visions of hope from becoming extinct. However, the method by which the characters get there is clunky, cumbersome, and preachy. Not everybody is as obsessed with post-apocalyptic mayhem as was implied. The movie suggested a call-to-action for positive thinking and doing. However, why do only the “special/creative people” get the calling? Where does this leave the rest of us? I am guessing the losers (or the people without solutions) will be left behind on earth.
In addition, there is not a single mention of a Disney Park in the movie. For those who actually thought there would be mentions of Disneyland, Walt Disney or the theme parks’ Tomorrowland, they will be sadly disappointed. Furthermore, the Tomorrowland of the movie is barely mentioned itself in the movie. In the Japanese trailer for Tomorrowland, the link between the Disney Parks and the Tomorrowland of the movie is explained by two clerks at the “Blast from the Past” store. This exchange never made it into the American movie. Lindelof explained this absence in an interview with Screencrush.
“There were very explicit references to Walt’s involvement in Plus Ultra (the secret society that creates Tomorrowland), and on the DVD you’ll see a scene in Blast from the Past where they say explicitly that Walt was a member, and Casey even says, ‘Like the Tomorrowland in Disneyland?’ That prompts them to explain that the theme park was actually a cover for the real Tomorrowland. But, aside from the fact that those scenes are pure exposition that can make you feel like you’re sitting through a history lesson, it felt like you were inside a Disney movie and every time we saw Disney get mentioned in it, it was a wink to the audience. Like a meta, self-aware thing that took you out. When the characters of the movie have to say the title of the movie. We have to be very discreet about when and how we use the word ‘Tomorrowland’ in this movie. It’s not like Bruce Willis ever needs to say ‘die hard’ in those movies.”
While I understand what Lindelof is saying, I still feel like it would have been fun to have explained the connections with Walt Disney, his involvement in Plus Ultra, and the Tomorrowland of the theme parks. I wouldn’t have minded references to those at all. For the many who have not studied Walt Disney’s involvement in the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, the historical connections were not too obvious in the film. Furthermore, where was the Carousel of Progress or Progressland in the world’s fair scene?
For me though, the biggest fault in the movie was the fact that you spent so little time in Tomorrowland. By the end, the storied kingdom of Tomorrowland seemed more like a state of mind, than an actual place. Who wouldn’t love a place where nothing was impossible? A shiny beacon of light and hope for mankind? A tomorrow we need not fear? A tomorrow we can aspire to? I do want to see it and explore it.
Even though a good portion of this movie was LOST (pardon the pun, Damon), there were many positives from this journey. First, bravo to the Walt Disney Studios for supporting an original story. The concept was completely outside the box. Second, the innovative and engaging promotions prior to the release of the movie were fun (even though it seems that most were not particularly helpful in the end). I loved that many movie attendees were given a Tomorrowland pin or an “E” ticket. Finally, Tomorrowland made you think. What movie have you seen lately that has prompted such discussion and debate?
For a Disney history fan, it may be hard to swallow a movie that takes so many liberties with a “true story” from Walt Disney’s life, as in Saving Mr. Banks. With Tomorrowland, the movie was almost completely void of that same man who loved innovation and progress. In the end, Lindelof didn’t have to wink to the audience, but he really should have entertained them. At least with Saving Mr. Banks, the general audience was enthralled with the story. I wish I could say the same for Tomorrowland.