Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This is Savant's most awaited disc of the year, a collection of Disney's Tomorrowland-themed television
shows that contains something I've wanted to see for forty years, Disney's 1950s "space" trilogy of
entertainment/educational shows that charted out the course for the next decade's space program. When I
saw them in 1959 at age seven, I had no idea they'd first been aired in 1955. Although that initial
broadcast was in B&W, Disney shot them in expensive color - which has to be the height of faith in
his own work.
Man in Space, Man and the Moon and Mars and Beyond are on
Disc One of this two disc set. Leonard Maltin again provides necessary context and
exposition to enable 2004 viewers to appreciate the effort and genius that went into these shows,
made the very same year that Disney was just a little preoccupied opening his Disneyland theme park.
Disney writer and animation
director Ward Kimball directs and hosts the programs, which feature a full multi-media mix of
interviews, graphics, full animation, special effects photography and even a live-action space
sequence the equal or better than similar work in George Pal's Conquest of Space made the same year. 1
The trio of shows take on the big task of educating the public about space travel, almost as if
they were paid to do so by the fledgling NASA (which I don't think existed yet in 1955). Coffee table
books with Chesley Bonestell art were popular earlier in the 50s, but I credit this landmark TV trilogy
the concept of space travel away from Buck Rogers and convincing America that it was really going to
happen. The only obvious objection was money - the hardware and rockets proposed in the show would
easily cost more than what the country was worth. Just the same, when Kennedy launched a Moon program
five years later the country was primed for the adventure. Disney's seal of approval had a lot
to do with it.
Director Kimball uses the "infotainment" formula that worked so well in
Victory Through Air Power. Each
show starts with a light comedic section providing background information. Breezy, clever
and funny episodes explain man's ancient curiosity for the stars and our popular romantic notions
regarding the moon. The last show has fun with our 20th century fascination with pulp fantasy
visions of Mars and space. Clever animation shows the explosion of space fantasy comix and a
hilarious segment about "the typical space monster story" wraps up the entire movie genre with
the wit and accuracy of a Mad magazine layout.
Animation fans will be intrigued by the variety of styles used here. The look of the cartoons
change with every new subject, showing Disney artists to be masters of their graphic craft. The
writing, visual invention and communication skill here are at the highest level of sophistication.
After the comedy section Man in Space its the remaining half hour or so to teach the
basics of space travel required to get a man into orbit. The concepts of escape velocity, multi-
staged rockets and orbiting are presented in the clearest terms using animated lecture boards and
beautiful conceptual drawings. Just as shown in The Right Stuff, America's brain trust for
the space race are all Germans. It's amusing to see and hear Deutschland's best, Werner von Braun,
Willy Ley etc., explaining theories and manipulating models for us just as they must have done for
the Nazi command fifteen years earlier. 2
But the U.S. Army didn't transplant them to New Mexico for nothing - these guys know their stuff.
Their accents and origin go unmentioned, even when a clip from Fritz Lang's 1929 The Woman in
the Moon demonstrates that they have been popularizing their space dreams for decades.
Disney's space launch is a doozie, shown with beautiful conceptual animation. The design of the
giant-finned rockets (immortalized in a line of styrene model kits that were the new hobby rage in
1955) is daring and creative, and most of the details of the launch and orbiting mission are a good
match for what we saw later with the Apollo program. The engineering of a space station is quite different
from how we're doing it now, but even when covered by stills, the visuals of worker-bee space suits buzzing
around assembling the orbiting wheel are beautiful. The launching of nuclear reactors
into space is taken as a routine idea. It hasn't happened yet in real life because there's too great
a risk of poisoning the entire planet. Tsk, tsk, details.
After a whimsical look at mankind's love affair with the moon with examples from Baron Munchausen to kid's
nursery rhymes, Man and the Moon settles in for the main course, the construction in orbit
of a rocket for a lunar journey. Here the show switches to live-action sets, actors and
special effects. The crew are young, white and forgettably bland looking, with a commander who looks
like Sergeant Rock (Frank Gerstle, from D.O.A., Between Heaven and Hell and
The Atomic Brain) clearly chosen
to affirm that any bold quest needs a military man in command.
The spaceship set and spacesuits are exceptionally good, and other effects are much better than those in
Pal movie. Exterior shots appear to use automated animation identical to the "invention" of motion
control twenty years later, but probably not with electronic control or synchronized selsun motors
moving the ships. Unlike Conquest of Space there are no travelling mattes and there aren't
convenient "clear strips" through the starfield for the ship to pass without the stars showing
through. It's really good effects work, and in brilliant color as well. 3
Passing over the dark side of the moon, the show reaches its climax with a dramatic use of flares
to see the landscape below, each brief flash accompanied by a blast of music. The final flash
reveals an obvious alien base of some kind, as postulated in fantasies like
The Mysterians. It's an odd dash of
fantastic provocation that goes unexplained, teasing the audience with the adventurous idea that the
ultimate dream of all this hardware obsession is the search for life in space.
Mars and Beyond moves from the fantastic dreams of the past to wild speculations of life elsewhere
in our solar system. A date isn't
specified, but now we have atomic spaceships that look like colossal parasols. A string of six of
them heads off to Mars, cueing the deep-think boys to come up with wonderful visualizations of
abstract scientific concepts.
The episode starts with a starfield backed by a "heavenly" score reminiscent of the opening of
Invaders from Mars of two years
before. The humorous entertainment section already showed us dozens of whimsical nonsense aliens,
but now we're given possible ways living things could have adapted to the hostile conditions
on other planets. Using every animation trick in the book, various theories are compounded until
Mars seems to be populated with monstrous vegetation more frightening than anything in Sci Fi
pictures. When the text postulates crystal creatures based on silicon instead of carbon, we
see visuals identical to those of
The Andromeda Strain of 16 years
Best of all is the idea (also taken up two shows before in a 'space medicine' section) that man might
reach his mental and physical limits, and be overwhelmed by the disorienting void of
vastness. How does one cope with conceptual vertigo when every direction is "down" into a black nothingness
that goes on into infinity? Disney was a brave pioneer in entertainment back then, transferring
to the screen stories like
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea while leaving
intact themes like 'justified' terrorism and colonial oppression. Here his organization and Ward
Kimball take us into a challenging and cold scientific future that promises the eventual unlocking of
all the mysteries of the cosmos - and there's not one mention of God or religion. Pretty risky stuff.
What's interesting about the show is that it was made before anybody had really defined what the
Science Fiction craze was all about. The year 1955 is fairly early in the cultural Sci Fi fad,
and Disney's people manage to encapsulize the real meaning
of most of its components - sense of wonder, pulp monster fun, fascination with techology. Then
they transcend it with visions of man's place in the universe.
Disney In Space is never discussed in critical examinations of the Science Fiction film
genre, but it appears to be one of its most important milestones. When space travel became
the property of nonfiction news shows and newspaper headlines, the majority of Sci Fi movies
retreated back into juvenile fantasies.
Disc Two of the Tomorrowland Tin is less ground-shaking but has its good points. The
three television specials show the gradual change in tenor in Disney docus. Also made for TV,
Eyes in Outer Space andOur Friend the Atom show more of a condescending attitude
sneaking in. Atomic power didn't turn out to be an endless supply of clean energy to usher the
world into a new era of peace and security, but that's not Disney's fault. There's nothing malign about
touting the promise of the atom in 1955. However, the Genie out of the Bottle imagery swiped from
The Thief of Bagdad makes it
seem as though Disney has decided to teach everyone with examples designed to reach kindergartners.
Between then and roughly 1966, when we see Walt just before he died showing his Epcot plans, something
went wrong with Disney's Tomorrowland ideas. The proposed city of Epcot might be the joy of utopian
designers, but it seems as unliveable as the porcelain towers of the 1936
Things to Come. People movers and
monorails are fine (if you're not handicapped), but the regimentation of our lives into an orderly anthill
of proscribed motions isn't any more attractive than the model's antiseptic-looking residential areas. The
basic living structure is a single family mansion and there aren't very many of them. Will
we all be a wealthy, educated and birth-controlled happy hive of obedient citizens? Or is
Disney proposing that those "apartment" structures closer to the center of town (away from the green-belt
gardens) are the living quarters for a working underclass?
One look at the Epcot dreams and my father
reiterated the old saw that Kubla Khan made the perfect city but forgot to create the perfect people
to live in them. Nobody's yet conceived of a societal structure that didn't have an underclass forced
to labor mainly for survival. Our cities are an organized chaos of petty disputes and nagging inequities,
but at least they're an adventure in their own right. We don't wake up in the morning to be moved about like
Hostess Twinkies on a Koyanniskatsi
The guest interview sections help bear this out. Futurist/author Ray Bradbury has high praise for Walt but
has tempered his optimism for endless futures of improvement. It's a far cry from his speech to my High
School in 1968 when he said that world peace would come when consumer realities conquered Red China and
Chairman Mao couldn't find a parking space in Peking. Chief Imagineer Marty Sklar has fascinating insights
into the social engineering ideas that began with Disneyland's amazing design. But what sneaks into the stew
is the necessity for and the domination by a little thing called "corporate sponsorship." The real culprit
seems to be the 1964 World's Fair (or '66?) where Disney designed some key installations for corporate
sponsors. The attractions later relocated to the Anaheim park, where the vapid "It's a Small World" ride
still draws crowds.
In the Space shows and other earlier docu-essays Disney's storytelling had always used cartoons and humor
to secure audience attention for the serious content. The empty style of "It's a Small World" has no serious
content and no message beyond Hallmark card drivel. The world is a bloody slaughterhouse of political,
racial and religious terror? Give them dancing dolls of peace singing a dippy song.
The old docus sometimes simplified concepts like atomic power, but the "Carousel of Progress" exhibit
briefly shown in Sklar's scrupulously avoided explaining anything, as if it were a waste of time.
The show insinuated that the future and our way of life had all been preplanned for us by benevolent
corporations. The Carousel explained the world thusly: 1) your grandparents had a quaint life
where all the household appliances were cute and funny. They must have laughed all the time! Look at
the funny dog! 2) Yes, all of our present power sources and utilities are a vast and complicated and
far too big for us, the corporate masters, to explain to you right now. Just keep paying your bills and
stop asking questions. 3) The future is all rosy and you'll be warm and snug in your beds. Just don't
put any restraint on our schemes to control the world and every facet of your insignificant lives. We'll
make sure that you get plenty of sports, fast food and wholesome Disney entertainment.
I learned nothing from the insultingly patronizing Carousel except that a paternalistic corporation
wanted me to be passive and admit that everything about reality was far too troublesome for me to
concern myself with, and much better left to "those who knew better." 4
That's the real drama played out in the second half of the Tomorrowland Tin - the dreams of a fantastic future
into corporate feudalism. Medical cures, public safety and who eats and who starves are now determined
by national interests as defined by and for big corporations. All we're left with is nostalgia for the days
of silvery rocketships and bold exploration into space. Disney's pioneering vision was watered down
to satisfy the aims and public images of its corporate sponsors. Tomorrowland is now just a futuristic
adjunct to Fantasyland.
Disney's Walt Disney Treaures: Tomorrowland - Disney in Space and Beyond set is a thing of
beauty. All the contents are in tip-top shape. Only the title and credit sequences of the three space
shows are in B&W; the rest of the material is in perfectly preserved color that flatters the
wide range of animation and graphic styles on display. The dynamic music tracks come through nicely
There is also a limited selection of behind the scenes stills, art conceptualizations, storyboards,
etc. The uneven nature of this set doesn't end things on the strongest of notes - Disc one is fabulous
and Disc 2 not as dazzling - but Disney in Space is already something I can't wait to re-view.
The new simplified menu system is a blessing. I was sick of navigating through galleries, endless
curtains and jukeboxes to figure out how to access basic content, and the new pared-down arrangement ends
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Walt Disney Treasures: Tomorrowland -
Disney in Space and Beyond rates:
Supplements: it's all a supplement, see above
Packaging: Double keep case in collectable tin that won't stop a bullet if you wear it
over your heart.
Reviewed: May 13, 2004
1. Conquest of Space
was Pal's second go at a 'documentary' space film after his great success with
Destination Moon. Studio meddling
ruined the picture, but it hardly mattered; after this Disney program "real" outer space adventures
were taken over by the US military/civilian space program, and most of movie science fiction beat
a hasty retreat to infantile stories like Queen of Outer Space.
2. The funniest and most acidic comeback line I ever heard on television
came from Dick Cavett, when a guest mentioned Werner von Braun and his popular autobiograpy. Cavett
added a subtitle to the book: I AIM AT THE STARS - But I Keep Hitting London! While watching the
show, Gary Teetzel pointed out that it sounded as if Willy Ley's voice was completely dubbed by Paul Frees,
with a convincing German accent.
3. The "adventures" en route to the moon are almost identical to those
encountered in Destination Moon. The repair of the meteorite hit with a convenient plug is
pretty amusing; it's rather simple compared to the brilliant crisis management and techno-panic of Apollo 13.
4. I think the perceived malice in things like It's a Small World and
The Carousel of Progress aligned pretty well with the fact that my graduating class faced being drafted
and sent to Vietnam. We still were still kids who wanted to believe in Walt Disney but the park responded to
the crazy world with silly singing dolls and patronizing messages from big companies. After the inspired
satire of The President's Analyst, the Disney way of communication with a smile now seemed an insult,
a tool to get us to conform.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Main Page.