The movie Tomorrowland
opened last weekend to fairly mixed reviews. Yet, being the theme park enthusiast that I am, this film made my "must see" summer film list. Whether you are a fan of the movie or not, it should be recommended viewing for all theme park fans because it raises an interesting moral question about the film's distributors themselves. At its very heart, Tomorrowland
is what Epcot should be.
Film image courtesy Walt Disney Pictures
Tomorrowland revolves around three main heroes: Frank Walker, played by George Clooney, Casey Newton, played by Britt Robertson, and a girl named Athena, played by Raffey Cassidy. Without revealing any spoilers, the central plot is about an inevitable apocalyptic future that these characters come together to reverse — with some fun, fantasy technology and one of the most necessary assets given to humanity, hope. It starts as a pretty standard fantasy adventure, with its point being driven home in the climax of the story.
For my money, I found the film to be enjoyable. It wasn't the greatest film I've seen, but it also wasn't the worst, and it had some fun theme park Easter eggs thrown in throughout. You see a rendition of the old 1964 New York World's Fair, a cameo by "It's a Small World," and Space Mountain in the distance as we see the land of tomorrow. The purpose for this article is not to review the film, but to reiterate something that fans who remember an earlier Disney World have been saying for many years now — Let's bring back that hope.
I was lucky enough to visit Epcot Center for the first time as a child in 1987. I remember a lot of little things any kid would get excited about, like sending my friend a "Food Rocks" postcard, getting a little plastic case filled with Runts candy, and getting a package of freeze-dried apricots that, for a few years, made the fruit synonymous with the park in my mind. Much more importantly, I remember being blown away. The animatronics on every ride created such a fantasy world for me to get lost in that I didn't care how slow they all were. I didn't care that they didn't have a roller coaster. Every ride had a purpose and a point, and my imagination was flooded. We had our history of communication explored, cars from the future, a giant aquarium, and many more great attractions.
The one that stuck out the most to me was the trip to the future — Horizons. We went on that at least three times one day, mostly because the ending where you could pick your destination was so fun. As I've gotten older, after riding it many many more times before it closed, I realize that it gave people so much more than a theme park thrill. It gave a positive message for the future. It gave the very pill Disney is asking us to swallow in its new film. It gave hope.
Most of us know the history of Epcot, how Walt never wanted it to be a theme park, but to be a city of the future where great minds would converge, advance technology, and work on making the world a better place. It was his final dream, that he never got to see realized. The Tomorrowland we see in the picture is built on that very premise, which is such an odd thing for the Walt Disney Company to ask us to accept. When faced with the choice of seeing through its founder's dreams or seeing the potential in its founder's assets, the company's management in the 1970s made the logical choice — they built another gate and another step toward building a mega resort that, basically, can print money.
The compromise seemingly was to create a park with a vision, which Epcot once had. But, eventually, Disney replaced World of Motion with the mild thrill of Test Track. It replaced Journey into Imagination with a shell of itself, and threw in a celebrity's face. It replaced "If you can dream it, you can do it," with "We're going to pretend to shoot you into space... but be careful, you might throw up."
I have trouble understanding how Disney can spend hundreds of millions to make a film about the necessity of hope for the future while having no issue with replacing that hope in its theme parks. I'm sure Disney wasn't expecting Mission Space to have 10-minute wait times as early in its lifespan as it did. (The same could be said for the Imagination pavilion.) I own video games that look better than Mission Space. Now we are dealing with a CEO of Disney who believes rides based on film franchises do better, and we haven't seen anything but since. Elsa's moving in and culture's moving out. What child out there would even pick up on the theme of the future from Future World anymore? Does it even have a purpose to hold that title? Will any child leave Epcot with the thrill of the future and its promise, or will they just leave saying that Magic Kingdom was better?
In cryptic fashion, the film's main antagonist, David Nix, played by Hugh Laurie, has a speech about human beings resigning themselves to despair and destruction rather than embracing optimism and life. He blames humanity's course on our laziness and our self-gratification in the moment, throwing tomorrow to the curb for today's payoff. Disney is using an old magic trick here. It would like us to watch one hand while it does the dirty business with the other.
The movie's central theme is to applaud the select few who do not accept a future of compromise and watching their ideals decay. In a microcosm of life, we all see the heart of the Epcot's demise, and we've just learned to accept it. Maybe it's my naïveté, but the idea of practicing what you preach never seemed more obvious.
Of course, in true Disney film fashion, the positive message always shines through, and the future is bright. George Clooney's character encourages his animatronic friends to go to Earth to find those who "haven't given up. They are the future." Epcot's is still my favorite park in Walt Disney World, not because of what it is but because of what it wanted to be, and the idea still flickers in some attractions. It brings back that feeling it gave me as a child that I will never let go of. Does Disney really want to encourage the spirit of Tomorrowland? Then give Epcot its identity back.
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