From decades before the movie, here’s some of the coolest, creepiest animation ever made gorgeously illustrates science fact and fiction…
Brad Bird’s George Clooney-starrin’ Tomorrowland is out in the wild now for all of your future-focused judgmental eyes, but did you know Walt Disney produced what I consider a superior version of Tomorrowland way back in the 1950s? Well, that’s sorta true. I’ve written at length about Tomorrowland, so let’s try and make a long story short, shall we? Now, where to begin?
Walt Disney was struggling to secure financing for the construction of Disneyland and through support from ABC (a network Disney now owns), an agreement was made to produce an anthology television show of original and re-purposed theatrical content to promote the theme park.
The program was appropriately enough titled “Disneyland” and began airing weekly nine months before The Happiest Place on Earth opened its doors to the public. The show is probably most famous for introducing the world to Davy Crockett, but IMO, what we’re about to showcase is light years better than that ’50s fad, and has gone largely unseen for over five decades.
As the most ambitious and potentially costly area in Disneyland, Tomorrowland was the final area of Disneyland to be “completed” and has remained something of a work in progress ever since. Unlike other areas of Disneyland that harken back to times of yore, Tomorrowland struggled to meet not only Walt’s futuristic vision, but also to update itself as the present caught up.
More so than any other themed area inside Disneyland, Tomorrowland has received the most significant overhauls, renovations and ride closures. And of course, oil/chemical/technology companies looking to stay ahead of the future jumped at the chance to stamp their name on Walt’s pleasantly idealistic take on what’s to come. Regrettably, that’s made Tomorrowland something of a corporate showcase for sixty years. Even these space-centric episodes of Disney’s classic ABC show could be seen as a plea to support “finishing” Tomorrowland. (And after seeing where it started, here’s where I think Tomorrowland is going.)
But can you blame Disney for making such compromises in his dreams? The interest in the future and space travel were definitely there in the era of construction. Not only was science fiction big at the movie theater, Disneyland opened during the dawn of the Space Race. The Cold War was heating up interest in trips to the stars, and culture’s cosmic curiosity was at a fever pitch. The cynical among you will undoubtedly shrug off the Disneyland show as a prime time infomercial for the theme park, and even if that’s a little true, I’d still strongly encourage animation fans to check out the episodes focused on Tomorrowland. Perhaps because there wasn’t a lot to focus on within the unfinished park itself, the program instead sets its sights on life throughout the universe and the science of just how the hell we’d get there.
Disney Legend Ward Kimball directed several fascinating looks at what life in space would look like and the specific science behind getting there and all of this history was only cataloged somewhat recently for the diehard Disney fans quick enough to snatch up a highly-limited DVD run. Yes, the toons are wildly speculative, but as a casual fan of space travel, it’s fairly astonishing how much they didn’t get wrong.
Did you adore Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s recent reboot of Cosmos? This show is essentially that, but with 100% less CGI! No clip better emphasizes the Disney’s influence on Cosmos than in the introduction to “Mars and Beyond,” without a doubt the top Tomorrowland episodes. As much as I love looking at real actors in speculative 1950s space suits, “Mars and Beyond” is almost wall-to-wall original animation, and this lighthearted jab at the humanity’s historical ignorance regarding the stars is both funny, beautiful, and offers a rather daring, albeit light slap to organized religion. Neil would be so proud!
But here’s the stuff I hope even the most casual animation fans stick around to watch. Later in the episode the show politely mocks the (then) contemporary look at alien life through the eyes of science fiction writers. This is a wonderfully inspired jab at the hyperbolic Mars propaganda being spread about by Hollywood and pulp stories. It’s pretty damned funny if I do say so myself.
If the narrator sounds familiar, sort of like a hybrid of Orson Welles and Keith David, that’s because it’s none other than Paul Frees. Disney fans may recognize Frees as the versatile voice of Ludwig Von Drake and Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride (“Are the walls getting taller?”) but he also rather wonderfully provides each and every animated voice in the “Mars and Beyond” episode. And nowhere does that Haunted Mansion connection become more clear than in the segment where Frees and the animators somewhat creepily envision a “realistic” look at life on Mars. This is is far and away my favorite sequence in the entire program. For what it lacks in scientific accuracy it makes up for with jaw-droppingly exquisite art direction and a cheekily unsettling mood.
These are just a few of my favorite sequences from the Tomorrowland of yore and I’m honored to showcase them here. These sequences were all but lost for almost half a century, up until Disney restored them in 2003 for a theatrical showing at The Animation Show, a now-defunct touring animation festival created by Don Hertzfeldt and Mike Judge. And just so ya know, the Tomorrowland episodes of the Disneyland TV series were restored and released in 2004 in an ultra-fantastic Disney Treasures box set, however, it was limited to 100K copies. As a nod to collectors, it’s been out of print and pretty hard to find for almost a decade now. I sincerely doubt they’ll go back into production, so if you see one out in the wild, snatch that shit up ASAP. You might have a collector’s item on your hands… in the world of tomorrow…