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Walt Disney Treasures:
Tomorrowland - Disney in Space and Beyond

1955-1959 (2004) - Disney

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Walt Disney Treasures: Tomorrowland - Disney in Space and Beyond

Program Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B-/A-

Specs and Features

Disc One
Approx. 160 mins, NR, full-frame (1.33:1), dual-disc keep case packaging in limited edition tin, single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), 6-page booklet, certificate of authenticity, Space Station X-1 poster lithograph, video introductions by film critic/historian Leonard Maltin, 3 films (Man in Space, Man and the Moon, and Mars and Beyond), animated program-themed menu screens with sound, languages: English (2.0 Mono), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

Disc Two
Approx. 103 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), video introductions by Leonard Maltin, 3 films (Eyes in Outer Space, Our Friend the Atom, and EPCOT), 2 featurettes (The Optimistic Futurist: An Interview with Ray Bradbury and Marty Sklar, Walt and EPCOT), 3 galleries (Publicity, Behind the Scenes, and Story and Background Art), Easter egg, animated program-themed menu screens with sound, languages: English (2.0 Mono), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

As wonderful as the Walt Disney Treasures line has been so far, it's almost inevitable that sooner or later the quality will take a substantial dip. After all, the series has been more successful than anyone could have predicted, certainly too successful to abandon anytime soon. And as voluminous as the Disney vaults are, the studio will most likely have to resort to releasing editions of dubious entertainment and archival value at some point in the hopefully-not-too-near future. At first glance, Tomorrowland may seem to be the first chink in the Treasures armor. As Leonard Maltin even points out in one of his introductions on this disc, scientific educational programs from the 1950's should not have tremendous replay value. The information should be outdated and the presentation should be creaky at best. Surprise, surprise... Tomorrowland is in fact a valuable historic presentation as well as an astonishingly entertaining collection of some of Disney's finest, yet least-seen, animation.

The majority of the material in this set was originally produced for the Disneyland TV series back in the 1950's and it would be easy to imagine these programs sparking the imagination of budding young space pioneers. The 50's was a golden age for science fiction, with genre milestones hit both in the movies and in literature. So to see factual material presented with the same kind of production value as any sci-fi movie must have been quite eye opening for both kids and adults. The television episodes and short films included in this set are:

Man in Space - A logical enough place to start as director Ward Kimball gives us a brief overview of the history of aviation and rocket science. Following this sequence is an animated piece speculating on the effect weightlessness will have on the human body. Concluding the episode is Dr. Werner von Braun's presentation of the future of space travel and a stylishly animated simulation of a space launch.

Man and the Moon - Man's relationship to our nearest celestial neighbor is explored historically, with an animated sequence depicting lunar superstitions, literature, and mythology. Then, we launch into the future with Dr. von Braun. The episode concludes with a live-action sequence depicting man's first trip around (not to) the moon. Interesting to note that back then it was thought that we'd build a gigantic orbital wheel-shaped space station before we'd make any attempt to actually reach the moon.

Mars and Beyond - Walt Disney and Garco the Robot introduce this, one of the most appealing episodes of the series. As with the moon episode, Mars and Beyond begins with a look back at celestial theories dating back to Ptolemy. Next is a wildly imaginative sequence depicting possible life on other planets, based on the fiction of H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs and popular then-contemporary comics like Weird Science. This is followed with a more serious sequence speculating what life on Mars might look like, filled with incredible, abstract animation unlike just about anything else in the Disney canon. And, like the other two episodes, this one wraps things up with a speculative look at a possible journey to the Red Planet.

Eyes in Outer Space - A theatrical short subject that was later played on the Disneyland show, this takes a look at the then-new idea of man-made orbital satellites and their practical applications. Special attention is paid to their use in weather forecasting, with an in-depth look at how meteorologists predict the weather (even including modern supercomputers fed with stacks and stacks of punchcards!). The film concludes with another live-action sequence, this one depicting a futuristic weather control station (that looks more like Dr. No's island lair) and its battle against a hurricane using satellites.

Our Friend, the Atom - There's no reason to be afraid of the nuclear boogeyman, not when Dr. Heinz Haber is around to explain the theories behind atomic energy! Unfortunately, old Dr. Heinz isn't the most dynamic public speaker in the world, so this is easily the driest of the programs on this set. But if you can get past that, this episode actually does its job quite well, explaining difficult concepts like nuclear fission in terms even I could understand. Sure, some of the science here has dated very badly. At the time, nuclear energy was simply considered a clean, efficient solution to our energy woes. And I'm sure that the animation depicting a Geiger counter clicking wildly in a field of irradiated corn was meant to inspire hope for the future and not fear. But all things considered, it's still an interesting document of its times.

EPCOT - This half-hour film was produced to win support in the Florida legislature for the fledgling Walt Disney World resort and especially the amazingly ambitious EPCOT (or Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) project. Walt's original plans for EPCOT bear little similarity to the globe-dominated funland we have today. Instead, it was nothing more than a revolution in urban planning, creating a planned community where people would live, work, and play in weather-controlled comfort. It was an amazing idea and who knows what would have become of it had Walt Disney lived. As it turned out, the EPCOT film would be his last appearance before his death.

As educational programs, the usefulness of these shows is about fifty-fifty. Each episode does have valuable historical information that is certainly as true today as it was when the shows were produced. But even taking into consideration the expiration date on some of the technical information, I think these can still be valuable teaching aides. The material is presented so well and with such a high level of energy and enthusiasm that kids today might be inspired to see what really happened next in space exploration.

But suppose you don't have kids and you don't care one iota about scientific TV shows from the 1950's. Even so, Tomorrowland is an entertaining showcase for animator and director/producer Ward Kimball. The animation in these episodes is (for the most part) leagues away from what is normally considered the Disney house style. It's abstract, angular, wild and jazzy. The swirling colors in the Mars and Beyond segment are dazzling and it's all the more remarkable when you realize that there really wasn't much point in going to all that effort, since the shows were originally broadcast in black and white. But say what you will about Walt Disney, he rarely did anything halfway. The production values in these episodes are far beyond what you would expect from television in the so-called "golden age". Even without the science, animation buffs will really get a kick out of this set.

While the original footage looks pretty darn good considering its age, the episodes are also dotted with stock footage that looks... well, like stock footage. So the technical qualities of this episode are maybe not as high as we've come to expect from the Walt Disney Treasures series. Sound quality also suffers a bit but, as always, when you're dealing with source material like this, you've got to grade on a curve.

Bonus features are reserved for the second disc and what they lack in quantity, they make up in quality. The Optimistic Futurist provides a warm, enthusiastic interview with the one and only Ray Bradbury (and if I have to explain who Ray Bradbury is, stop watching so many DVDs and go read some books, for crying out loud). Bradbury speaks at length about his memories of Walt and his accomplishments on TV, on film, and in the theme parks. And although he wasn't directly involved with any of the programs on this set, Bradbury is such a wonderful personality and such an ideal choice for this theme that you hardly notice. I think Ray Bradbury should be interviewed on every DVD that he's even remotely interested in.

Marty Sklar, Walt and EPCOT is one of those title-tells-it-all featurettes, chatting with (obviously) Marty Sklar, VP of Walt Disney Imagineering. Sklar provides more memories of Walt and gives a good comparison between Walt Disney's vision of EPCOT and the park today. Rounding things out are the now expected galleries with occasional audio comments by Leonard Maltin. There's publicity material, tie-in books, behind-the-scenes photos, and a wealth of gorgeous story and background art. Easter egg hunters can also uncover footage of Walt Disney and the Sherman Brothers singing "There's A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" for the General Electric Pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. Good choice for an egg, since it's kind of neat if you're a fan but hardly essential viewing.

There's no doubt in my mind that if I had been a kid when Disneyland was first on the air, the Tomorrowland episodes would have been my favorites. They were imaginative, entertaining and sneakily good for you, too. The nostalgia factor will run high on this set for adults who remember these shows from when they were young. For the rest of us, it's a glimpse at an era when technology was our friend, progress was in the air, and tomorrow actually seemed like it would be better than today. Wouldn't that be something?

Adam Jahnke
[email protected]

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