Tomorrowland Essay

Intro: This was my final paper for the class, Disney in Film & Culture, taught by the woman who is now my thesis advisor, my fairy godmother, Dr. Susan Ohmer.

I actually wasn’t super proud of this essay, but it was fun. I wish I would’ve spent more time on it.


Ashley Knipp, 12 December 2015, Paper 3 Final

Tomorrowland: Scorned for Choosing Responsibility Over Escapism

Tomorrowland (2015) is rumored to be Disney’s worst-performing movie ever,[1] losing somewhere between $120 and $140 million on a production budget of $180 million plus $150 million in marketing and more in distribution expenses.[2] However, none of these numbers necessarily condemn the film’s value. Tomorrowland achieved nonfinancial goals, much like its predecessors. The film is an anti-escapist call to arms, an attempt to inspire the next generation of engineers, scientists, and academics to take charge, save our world, and in the words of Walt Disney, keep moving forward. Tomorrowland has always been focused on progress. From the Disneyland television program of the 1960s to the parks that exist today in both Disneyland and Disney World, Tomorrowland sparks practical innovation alongside wonder in imagining new gadgets and flying cars. Though a box office flop, Tomorrowland’s value stems from Disney’s long-standing mission regarding education, relevance, and participation in societal development.

As a financial powerhouse, Disney was hoping for a hit. Tomorrowland’s fate may have been sealed when escapism charged the box office landscape. The top ten highest grossing films of 2015 included Jurassic World, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Furious 7, Minions, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, Cinderella, and another Mission Impossible film.[3] Brent Lang of Variety Magazine pointedly stated, “As much as people claim they love fresh and unique movies, they’re more likely to shell out money for sequels and reboots.”[4] People want to see what’s familiar, and what’s familiar is escapist. People will only spend money on a future in which superheroes defend the Earth, while Tomorrowland encourages, if not begs, society to get to work themselves, unapologetically bating short-term satisfaction.

With very little revealed about the plot before release, the masses expected Tomorrowland to deliver high-tech gadgets and unrealistic science fiction, but those hopes were dashed and a message was delivered. The film not only leaves the imaginations of the viewers unfulfilled, but also asks the viewers to invent, to create the gadgets they wanted to see. In Justin Lang’s Variety review, he scolds Tomorrowland for its choice not to exploit the famous park rides like Space Mountain and Star Tours. He praises the only truly escapist, fantastical sciences represented: an “international landmark that suddenly bursts open like a Faberge egg [and] an ordinary-looking house that turns out to have so many gizmos, pulleys, booby traps and escape pods … duly explode with a welcome sense of invention and limitless possibility.”[5] Again, he seems to miss the fact that the film motivates the audience to work to transform “possibility” into reality. Chang goes so far as to say the film is “undermined by a narrative that never delivers the surge of escapist excitement seemingly promised at the outset… It’s here, too, that the film reveals its intent as a humanitarian/ecological call to arms, delivering an attack on widespread cynicism and apathy.”[6]

What if cynicism and apathy are enemies we need to attack? Many said that Tomorrowland was an attack on the apocalyptic blockbusters like Divergent, The Hunger Games, and The Maze Runner – more escapist films assuring audiences there is nothing we can do about Armageddon. In an interview with Brad Bird, director of Tomorrowland, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, and a handful of other Disney films, Bird joked, “”Unfortunately I can’t go with every filmgoer … and go, ‘Oh no, that’s not what we meant.’”[7] Bird laid out his true intention – looking at the process behind apocalyptic films. “We were wondering why is there no other point of view about the future. [D]oes it become a self-fulfilling prophecy if we keep imagining that that’s the only future and we have no say in creating it?”[8]

An original, responsible, and inspiring idea: apparently unpopular with the masses, but not a game-changer. Even with a few mishaps, Disney thrives as a mass media monster. Analyst Eric Handler of MKM Partners noted, “Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron has earned nearly $1.35 billion worldwide since May. And coming up, there’s Inside Out, Ant-Man, and Star Wars. Disney will do just fine this year [despite Tomorrowland’s loss].”[9] These tentpole films are an element in a system designed to allow for the financial risk of original programming, as it should; there is plenty of room for films looking to both earn a profit and educate the public.

Multi-mission projects are historically rooted in Disney’s business model. For example, Disney was hired to produce animated training videos for the military during the Second World War, and released several award winning, feature-length True Life Adventures beginning in the 1950s.[10] Compiling the highlights of hundreds of thousands of dollars of footage to create an entertaining but informative film, Walt Disney modeled the Disneyland TV show’s Tomorrowland episodes after the documentaries, saying, “We are trying to show man’s dreams of the future and what he has learned from the past. . . . I think this parallels the ‘TrueLife Adventures’—facts and opening up this world to people.”[11] These clearly influence today’s Disneynature documentary films. Though the film series’ eighth film, Monkey Kingdom (2015) made only $16.7 million in the worldwide box office, it still holds value. Disneynature and Tomorrowland represent entertainment that honors Walt Disney’s commitment to relevance.

Tomorrowland’s message is undoubtedly a “call to action,” and it wasn’t Disney’s first call. The best example is found in Victory Through Air Power (1943), during which Alexander de Seversky mapped out the realities of World War II battles and strategies, not only informing the public about the state of the war, but also suggesting a winning strategy – victory through airpower.[12] Mirroring the aforementioned reviews, audiences at the time felt swindled when going to the theater, paying for a Disney film, and getting an informational and perhaps propaganda-like lecture. The film was meant to be relevant, to stir up a ruckus, and to unite the audience as patriots against the enemies – admittedly leading to some racist implications. Victory Through Air Power was a commercially released film aiming to inform and promote meaningful conversation about the here and now. Tomorrowland is labeled “original” nowadays because this propagandistic style is nearly extinct in the studio-scene and has been banished to the land of independent film.

It’s almost sad that the film is considered original, because its title is pulled from the long-established Disney parks. Though original in its concepts, Tomorrowland is no new idea. The film is a direct descendant of the themes, motivations, and strategies from the birth of Tomorrowland in the Disneyland TV show episodes.

In a chapter of J.P. Telotte’s eBook, TV Milestones: Disney TV, Telotte investigates Tomorrowland as a concept, its strengths and weaknesses, and its most powerfully relevant three-episode series, “Rockets and Space.” It seems that Tomorrowland (2015) inherited its not-quite-accepted, unique quality.

According to Telotte, Tomorrowland has always fumbled with the relationship between its brand, mission, audience, and its role within Disney World. During the conception of Disneyland, Walt Disney anticipated that the studio would have no issues creating programming that connected to each park, but animator Bill Cotter said no one at the studio “was quite sure exactly how to portray the future.”[13] Compared to the other three Disneyland TV show segments (Fantasyland, Frontierland, and Adventureland), Tomorrowland dragged far beyond the rest in episode count. Before planning the park, the company had never really dealt with the future, or any sort of science fiction, for that matter. This is why Disney decided to adopt elements from the True Life Adventure series, and also to avoid the common style used for futuristic content seen in “space dramas” of the time.[14] This choice parallels Tomorrowland’s contrasting relationship with the apocalyptic film trend today.

In addition to True Life Adventures, Walt drew from elements of Victory Through Airpower to design Tomorrowland’s brand within the Disneyland TV show. The brand was first established in a project nicknamed, “Rockets and Space” spawning three episodes: “Man in Space,” “Man and the Moon,” and “Mars and Beyond.” Disney hired German scientists von Braun, Ley, Haber, and Ernst Stuhlinger to act as technical consultants as well as on-air narrators, paralleling Seversky’s role in 1943. Each added authenticity and credibility to the project, but also bypassed the fun and escapist elements of the traditional Disney brand.

Animator Ward Kimball described how the space episodes were meant to “forward march of science” and emphasize “the latest plans our scientists have made for the conquest of space.”[15] Again, similar to Victory Through Airpower, these episodes combined animated shorts and informative lectures all focused on society’s relationship with space and the notion of progress. However, the informational elements of the “Rockets and Space” series diminished with each episode and cartoon elements increased. The tone of the Cold War became darker and dire, casting a shadow of fear over the “realness” of space. Audiences needed fun, exciting, cartoon science to cope with the technological threats the country faced at the time. Relevance is a time-sensitive issue by definition, contributing to the volatility of Tomorrowland’s brand.

Telotte argues, “[Tomorrowland’s] strategy is simply to link the voices of Disney, the artist, and similarly authoritative voices, to take audiences in a seriously speculative direction television [which] had not previously staked out.”[16] In fact, the writers of the “Rockets and Space” were hesitant to cover material too far in advance of current scientific knowledge. The future is the unknown and the unknown is frightening. Without a separate, reliable, futuristic world, Tomorrowland has always asked us to look at our own, unpredictable world; one that requires us to participate within it.

Despite the monetary and thematic dangers of relevance, Disney’s attempts in relevance have held great power; first, with Victory Through Air Power. There is a very real possibility that the film helped to push the U.S. military in the direction of an airpower-focused strategy, which they did eventually implement on a large scale during WWII. In regards to the “Rockets and Space” series, Telotte reports, “in 1957, the United States would, as the show described, launch a satellite into earth orbit— a project that the government put into the hands of many of those experts involved in the Collier’s and Disneyland series. Precisely how much the show actually influenced Eisenhower and American space policy remains open to question.”[17] Despite the “failures” of Victory Through Airpower, the Tomorrowland segment of Disneyland, and Tomorrowland (2015), Disney’s relevant pieces do have the potential for significant impact on society. When there is money to mitigate the possible loss, why be discouraged?

Tomorrowland was a multi-mission endeavor meant for more than box office revenues, following a long-trodden path of educational and relevant Disney productions. Many audience members wondered if the film is for children or adults – I would argue it is meant for both, because relativism and participation in the progression of society is not an exclusive right of adults. Tomorrowland presents children the opportunity to engage in conversation about the environment, political and technological landscapes, and their future roles in the world in which they live. Any attempt to educate and inspire the next generation to be more curious, autonomous, responsible, and innovative is worth whatever backlash escapists might hurl.

[1]Morgan, Richard. “‘Tomorrowland’ Is Disney’s Worst-performing Movie Ever.” New York Post, June 10, 2015. Accessed December 8, 2015.

[2] McClintock, Pamela. “Disney Could Lose $140 Million on ‘Tomorrowland’ Flop.” The Hollywood Reporter. June 10, 2015. Accessed December 10, 2015.

[3] “Annual Movie Chart – 2015.” The Numbers. Accessed December 8, 2015.

[4] Lang, Brent. “‘Tomorrowland’ Exposes Hollywood’s Originality Problem.” Variety. May 25, 2015. Accessed December 8, 2015.

[5] Chang, Justin. “Film Review: ‘Tomorrowland'” Variety. May 17, 2015. Accessed December 8, 2015.

[6] Ibid.

[7] McMillan, Graeme. “Brad Bird Talks ‘Tomorrowland’ Reception: Can’t Tell Every Filmgoer “That’s Not What We Meant”” The Hollywood Reporter. October 5, 2015. Accessed December 10, 2015.

[8] Ibid.

[9] McClintock.

[10] “True Life Adventures/ DisneyNature Movies.” IMDb. Accessed December 10, 2015.

[11] Telotte, J.P.. TV Milestones : Disney TV. Detroit, MI, USA: Wayne State University Press, 2004. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 9 December 2015.


[12] “Victory Through Air Power.” IMDb. Accessed December 8, 2015.

[13] Telotte.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.


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