In Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the ape known as Moon-Watcher discovers various uses for a large piece of bone, presumably that of a dead tapir. He finds that with some force, the bone could be used as a blunt weapon to defend himself and the other apes from the big cats.
But then, he also uses it to commit what must be the world’s first act of murder.
Throughout the rest of the film, Kubrick reminds us that our tools have the capacity to turn deadly. Moon-Watcher, in one of the film’s most famous scenes, throws the bone into the air and it morphs into a nuclear weapon in space.
Fast-forward to 33 years later, one of Kubrick’s long-languishing projects, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, was realised by Steven Spielberg, who displayed a surprisingly deft handling of the complex material of existential poignancy. Now, there are two points I want to bring up about A.I.. One is the unnecessarily high praise given to human beings in one scene that goes completely against the rest of the film. Alien beings in the future tell the robot boy David that they are envious of human beings and their ingenuity. This is particularly strange because A.I. is, in most part, about human cruelty.
The other thing is the film’s allusions to the story of Pinocchio, the puppet who wants to be a real boy. Kubrick himself had described A.I. as “a picaresque robot version of Pinocchio.” And Pinocchio was Disney’s second animated feature, after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and which won two Oscars.
It’s sad to see Tomorrowland bomb at the box-office. The summer tentpole release didn’t draw in the crowds, despite a name director (Brad Bird) and the promise of an effects extravaganza. But if you think about it, you might be apt to believe that the “Disney crowd” at whom the film was targeted perhaps subconsciously picked up on the film’s inherently anti-Disney traits.
On paper, Tomorrowland‘s scenario looks like classic Disney stuff – a nostalgic-throwback opening with the New York World’s Fair of 1964, where Disney had involvements in many of the attractions; a story about a shining Utopia where everything is nice and clean and efficient, and everyone wears a smile; lots of action and adventure with a load of CGI effects; and a cast of young people. But at the core of the story is really a dark fable of human self-destructiveness and greed. And that’s not so Disney.
Admittedly, another problem lies with the film’s lack of a dramatic arc and purpose in the early parts, which probably left most people bored and scratching their heads wondering where the whole thing was going. I certainly did. But once things get going, they really get going.
I can really sum up the story more interestingly than how it actually unfolded. Quite simply, Casey, a teenager who’s obsessed with science and whose father works for NASA, comes across a pin that, when she touches it, gives her visions of a futuristic city. When she tries to find the pin’s origins, she ends up rescued from certain death by a strange little girl who can fight like Jet Li and drive a car. She’s then brought into contact with a grumpy old hermit who knows the true secret of that future city, and who wants to have nothing to do with it.
(I like to keep my reviews as spoiler-free as possible, but here’s fair warning that there might be mild giveaways after this.)
Like I said before, despite it being a Disney film, Tomorrowland is, in many ways, removed from all that Disney stands for, and might even be seen as an indictment of the false Utopia that Disney peddles to both children and adults. When the old man Frank Walker was a boy-inventor visiting the World’s Fair, he took a ride in the Disney attraction, “It’s a Small World,” but was taken on a detour into a secret passage that led to the future city, where all was not what it seemed. We learn later that Frank had built something in the city that was not supposed to be built which led to the city falling apart and Frank getting kicked out of there. It was something that literally brought harsh reality into that idyll future.
You can derive your own conclusions from that, but I see that as shattering Disney’s idealistic ideologies that see the world through rose-tinted glasses and dress it all up in happy song and dance, never mind that out there the real world is going to hell in a handbasket.
Fantasy and fairy tales have the power to lull us into a false sense of hope. It’s what happens to the boy robot David in A.I., who is driven to embark on an obsessive quest to become a real boy after encountering Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio. And Disney’s version of Pinocchio certainly “sanitises” the original to fit its own conservative worldview.
In the wonderful world of Disney, there is a moral code of traditional values. Love and the good guys always win, things are always resolved nicely with a dose of shining optimism and a “happily ever after.” Yes, mothers die (Bambi) and people are mistreated (Dumbo, Pinocchio) but in the end, if you stay to the right, the world will be yours.
It all plays like an advertisement for how things could be – an advertisement only, because the real world isn’t like that. And so Casey discovers later that the visions the pin gave her of the future city and its inhabitants (there is a stunning one-take tour of the city as we follow Casey through it, even taking a floating train to a launch pad) are but a mere “advertisement”, as Frank tells her. The real world has crept into that Utopia and is slowly destroying it.
If you need a stronger visual parallel, then consider the repeated shots of the city in the distance, looking like Disney’s now-famous logo and opening ID featuring the Sleeping Beauty castle. In fact, in the opening credits, the Disney logo does indeed replace the castle with the future city. Shockingly enough, Tomorrowland is telling us that Disneyworld isn’t all that it’s cut out to be.
The parallels don’t stop there. The Tomorrowland city is run by Governor Nix, a character who might just be Walt Disney himself.
To know Disney the man, one only has to read Richard Schickel’s balanced look at the animation pioneer, The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney (1968). In it, Schickel analyses the two sides of the man – the dreamer/artist who lived solely for his art; and the shrewd, tyrannical businessman who selfishly held on to his empire and swept away all who stood in his way. As an artist, he was visionary, but the other side of him is now notoriously well-known. His racist, misogynistic, conservative and plutocratic tendencies seeped into his work, and I don’t have to repeat any examples here.
Governor Nix is a conservative figure who believes in only his own vision that is far from pluralistic and inclusive. He wants to keep out not just Frank, but the world at large. There is a slim similarity between him and the Adrian Veidt character of the Watchmen graphic novel, in that both men have an ultimate plan to save humanity but which involves collateral damage. But our allegory here is of a man lording over his wonderland. And that is a very interesting aspect of this film.
In The Matrix, Agent Smith, in his monologue, rightfully called human beings “a disease, a cancer of this planet,” We are not so ingenious as to be envied by more advanced life-forms, like in A.I..
The year 1968 was probably the most fruitful in producing science-fiction films that questioned our dubious existence and role in, and contribution to, the planet and the universe. There was Planet of the Apes, 2001 and a two-part Russian TV movie version of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, three years before Andrei Tarkovsky’s philosophical ruminations. (Yes, Barbarella was also released that year, but we’ll talk about that another time!)
In all these stories is a certain human fatalism, an inevitability for us as a race of beings. Quite simply, we have a tendency to destroy ourselves; we really can’t help it. I like and am surprised by this element of Tomorrowland, especially it being a Disney movie. We are hurtling towards extinction, and we’re helping to speed up that process every step of the way. Even when the solution is right before us, we choose to ignore it. Such is the state of things in Tomorrowland – even when a simple dichotomy presents itself to us, we choose the path of destruction.
This aspect of the film is also probably what makes it seem odd to audiences expecting a happy-go-lucky action-adventure family movie. Tomorrowland has a dark core, despite the fact that it does indeed fulfill the requirements of a “Disney version” with a certain lightheartedness about its characters and the imperativeness of their fate in the Disney universe where everyone will live happily ever after.
I doubt that Brad Bird set out to make a movie with such parallels as I have mentioned. But there it is anyway, and this dark fable dressed in optimistic Disney clothes cannot hide the very essence of its story that focuses on our dark descent. While it does remain optimistic with its ending, it doesn’t offer an ever-after solution, but only the possibility of hope and redemption. The future remains unwritten, and the film exhorts dreamers to action, thereby effectively extolling the virtues of Walt Disney’s more positive side while criticising his less desirable traits.
On an end note, I’d like to say that I’m pretty much delighted by the similarities between George Clooney’s grumpy old Frank character and the one in Pixar’s Up. Both are helped out of their moodiness by a young character, while both movies chime in about staying young at heart.