It’s easy for cynics to dismiss the Disney theme parks as one-note fantasies with little connection to real life. They can point to the corporation behind the scenes as evidence that profits are the only goal. In one sense, that reaction is true. The parks are designed to manipulate us. Money drives their creation and most decisions about the parks. Even so, The Tomorrow Society believes there’s something beyond the surface that remains. For lack of a better term, let’s call it magic.
My first EPCOT visit in 1984 built the idea in my eight-year-old mind that the future would be amazing. Each pavilion offered a new discovery, and there was nothing else like it. The neo-futuristic architecture and positive ideas promised a better world where people worked together to solve problems. The gorgeous public spaces were imposing but delivered a sense of hope, not fear.
This feeling is everywhere in Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, an upbeat and deceptively complicated tale about our potential. We landed on the moon! Why can’t we work together to fix the environment? The script from Bird and Damon Lindelof includes a few speeches that will send cynics running for the exits. That doesn’t mean it’s simplistic propaganda, however. The heroes are thinkers who ask “how do we fix it?” instead of surrendering. Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) can’t accept that our dreams of reaching the stars are gone. Her character’s sabotage of the NASA launch pad speaks to my frustration with the marginalization of space flight. She sticks out her neck to make something happen, even if resistance is futile. That persistence makes Casey unique in a society where the end of the world feels way too close.
What is it about this movie that’s turned off so many? It’s possible there’s only a limited subset of people excited to imagine a futuristic world of jet packs and people movers. Given our unquenchable need for spectacle, that theory seems unlikely. Instead, the message of confidence in a better future may be falling on deaf ears. Has the audience given up on the optimistic technological world envisioned by Walt Disney? There are definitive connections between his plans for the forward-thinking community of EPCOT and this Tomorrowland. Direct references to Walt were cut from the movie, but his presence hangs over everything. In a way, the criticisms of Tomorrowland prove its central conceit that dreamers are few and far between today. The current EPCOT remains popular, but it’s lost much of its original message. I’m a fairly pragmatic soul, yet I’m really surprised by all the negativity towards the film’s central themes.
The story opens with a warm look at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair — a pivotal event in Disney history. Young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) stares with wide-eyed amazement at technological displays while the Sherman Brothers’ “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” plays. He rides the original “it’s a small world” and is transported to a mysterious city of the future. This place is straight out of a pulp sci-fi novel and has a similar optimism as the displays at the World’s Fair. It’s a real treat to catch even a brief glimpse at such an important time for the Disney Company.
Walt used his commissioned World’s Fair attractions to test out new technologies that would become prominent at Disneyland. It’s believable to expect there were mysteries behind the scenes at the fair. This vision of a better place that exists alongside our world is fascinating and connects to the Tomorrowland areas of the parks. It’s no surprise that Space Mountain appears in the distance when Casey makes her first visit. Bird captures the excitement so many of us felt when first visiting EPCOT and Tomorrowland on an even grander scale.
Tomorrowland keeps its secrets hidden from Casey (and us) for quite a while. Once the credits have rolled, we’ve barely scratched the surface. It’s the type of movie that’s built to unveil intriguing deleted scenes and other gems in its home release. When Casey and the adult Frank (George Clooney) stop the apocalypse, it ends the movie but feels like just the beginning. Plus Ultra was designed to make the future better, but there’s still a lot to do to make that vision real. There may be no way to save humanity from destroying itself. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, however. I wish that Tomorrowland at Disney World still conveyed the same vibe. Extinct attractions like The Timekeeper, Dreamflight, and even the goofy Mission to Mars conveyed that excitement. We aren’t getting it from the Pixar invasion. The potential remains for an inspiring land, but recent changes haven’t served that goal.
Prior to Tomorrowland’s release, I hoped its success would encourage Disney to re-design its parks. Less popular attractions like Stitch’s Great Escape and Innoventions at Disneyland offered perfect spots to expand the film’s story. If Jack Sparrow could find his way into the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, why couldn’t this happen? The poor box-office performance makes that prospect unlikely, however. The crowds weren’t convinced they needed to visit this brave new world. It’s hard to sell original properties that aren’t tied to Marvel or another recognizable brand. Being connected to a theme-park land through the title wasn’t enough. Clooney has star power, but we’re past the days when an actor can open a movie.
Despite the financial disappointment, I’m thrilled that Bird got the chance to make such a unique movie. He creates a convincing world that makes an android (“audio-animatronic”) resembling an 11-year-old girl believable. Athena (Raffey Cassidy) is very different from the evil robots we typically see in modern sci-fi. It’s easy to care about her while recognizing that she’s an artificial creation. That heart is why the story connects so strongly with me. This is a movie worthy of The Tomorrow Society.
It’s one thing to recreate the 1964 World’s Fair and depict a wondrous place out of a sci-fi fan’s dream. That’s only half the battle. All the pretty imagery in the world means little if it doesn’t connect with us emotionally. Just ask George Lucas. Tomorrowland lost millions, but it charmed plenty of idealists like this one. It may not bring a renaissance of positivity and dramatically impact the parks, but it’s thrilling to see Disney make the effort.