Disney Sells Sanctuary: The Promise of ‘Tomorrowland’

There is one single sequence in Disney Pictures’ Tomorrowland involving school teachers. For 60-90 seconds co-protagonist Casey is shown via in various high school courses, frustrated by a monotony of teachers (History, Science, Literature) lecturing on doom, gloom and day of reckoning, each ignoring her raised hand.  When she is begrudgingly given the chance to speak, she asks her lit teacher if they can fix it, make the world better, and stop the doom and gloom.  The teacher stares at her, blankly, until by the trope of school convenience he is saved by the school bell.  Class ends, students leave while talking about Casey under their breath, and she remains at her desk, alone, presented as the only person who cares about making the world a better place.

Disney, the world’s largest entertainment brand and consistently one of its largest entertainment company, has permeated media culture for nearly 100 years, the results evident in social attitudes towards The Mouse as well as academic literature.  There are mounds of scholarship on the relationship of Disney entertainment with society and culture; I would point to Henry Giroux’s The Mouse that Roared as an entry point through critical theory, as well as Wasko, Phillips & Meehan’s Dazzled by Disney.  These works posit Disney as an organization dedicated to the perpetuation of specific cultural order and social norms, where all elements of the enterprise value a shared and systematic view where obedience and safety are controlled through harkening to a facsimile yesteryear.

While this sounds like what French philosopher Jean Baudrillard would call a simulacrum, Baudrillard took the Disneyland of the late 1970s/early 1980s much further:

Disneyland is a perfect model of the entangled orders of simulation.  To begin with it is a play of illusions and phantasms:  Pirates, the Frontier, Future World, etc.  This imaginary world is supposed to be what makes the operation successful.  But what draws the crowds is undoubtedly much more the social microcosm, the miniaturized and religious reveling in real America, in its delights and drawbacks.  You park outside, queue up inside, and are totally abandoned at the exit.  In this imaginary world the only phantasmagoria is in the inherent warmth and affection of the crowd, and in that sufficiently excessive number of gadgets used there specifically to maintain the multitudinous affect.  The contrast with the absolute solitude of the parking lot—a veritable concentration camp—is total….Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America, which is Disneyland…Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and simulation.

Baudrillard, Art After Modernism:  Rethinking Representation, 1984

Much has changed in the two generations since Baudrillard took his road trip across America, and in that time Disney has developed facades in Anaheim and Orlando (not to mention Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong and Shanghai, nor the separate vacation properties in the United States), their media contents have grown to seemingly exponential heights, and the Disney production umbrella now holds some of the most iconic media entities in popular culture (ESPN, Marvel, Star Wars, etc.).  The ubiquity of Disney as a social staple means the concealment Baudrillard harkens to is for all intents and purposes gone — Disney and what it represents need not only exist in the confines of an amusement park.

The premise of Tomorrowland can be boiled down beyond an elevator pitch:  the world needs dreamers.  This is the world change peddled in education circles by people such as Sir Ken Robinson, whose TED talk has resulted in a great number of views and calls to action but action has yet to manifest.  Robinson’s desire to make schools more creative is apolitical and skirts issues of inequality.  I have previously wondered why Robinson has not engaged a platform of advocacy beyond dreaming; that criticism remains prescient.  This is not about having a rubric for developing creative schools but rather an engagement strategy beyond the attention span of a TED talk or a Disney movie.

Tomorrowland starts its timeline story at the 1964 World’s Fair, with the strains of The Sherman Brothers’ There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow playing in the introduction of co-protagonist Frank Weller’s youth character.  This song, as well as Sir Ken and Disneyland, sells the same modernist Fantasyland — we are just around the corner from the life we all desire and deserve, it is in our reach, and if we could just accomplish ________ we will get there.  In Disney media, the youth are the dreamers and the ones who can change the world [ostensibly for the better], and the adults are placed in the position of antagonist, obstacle, plug — the ones who have broken the world or wish it to remain inert.  There are some adults who are still dreamers (George Clooney’s portrayal of Frank Weller and Tim McGraw as Clare’s dad, both evidently involved in STEM careers), but the antagonist (Governor Nix, played by Hugh Laurie in large trousers) as well as the faceless and nameless adults (teachers included) are downtrodden or inert, satisfied with putting a halt to this carousel of progress.

This is the problem with Tomorrowland, and the Disney zeitgeist as a whole:  dreaming is not just a pre-requsite for solving problems, but dreaming = solved problems.  The dream is the conclusion rather than the opportunity.  Disney might say their ethos of dreaming and imagineering is about inspiring people, and as such inspiration is the seed that creates a better tomorrow; Disney plays its part in manifesting the Beautiful Tomorrow and leaving the rest outside of The Mouse.  The problem with such thinking is that Disney is not in the business of inspiring; it is in the business of selling dreaming, and the distinction between the two is key.

If we all believe in a world of dreams and imagination
If we all let go there’s no way to know where this spark can take us
So much more than a destination
A journey to imagination

Lyrics from Mickey and the Magical Map – Disneyland Theme Park Show

Beautiful ideas marketed to a consuming public lose their beauty; Disney has created an idealism in Tomorrowland but mutes any potential benefit by appropriating dreaming to a consumable activity rather than a personal journey supplemented by numerous sources where Disney is but one of many avenues.  The dream marketing is evidenced by the sameness of the Disney message across its various platforms — songs about imagination as inspiration, movies about imagination as inspiration, characters seeking imagination as inspiration, merchandise stamped with imagination as inspiration…one gets the feeling Disney is not looking to inspire youth but rather for youth to consume Disney’s prescription of inspiration.

I do not believe Disney is a nefarious villain archetype in this scenario; rather, from the perspective of the corporation, inspiration is directly aligned with consumption.  Disney also understands that consumption does not always involve a direct monetary transaction, which is what is so troubling about the across-the-board marketing of inspiration as something we consume rather than engage and develop. Disney has created a dependency on the feeling of inspiration as sold by The Mouse rather than a perpetuation for people to internally shape upon leaving the guise of The Mouse.

Disney is not the first company to paint schoolteachers as antagonists downtrodden by bureaucracy and as much a part of the problem as anything (and Tomorrowland is not the most recent example; the outtakes from Inside Out play the very same trope in the very same key).  This elicits a cheap laugh and a cheaper ethos bordering on verisimilitude.  If we present schoolteachers (and police officers, and government officials, and other markers of society and the superstructure) as part of the problem, where does our society then support and scaffold creativity?  The answer is, it does not.

By framing those within the structure as part of the problem, there is nowhere to go for inspiration but to our corporations, our TED talks, our Disneyland.  And we are not going there to incubate inspiration, but just to get a taste, take a hit and feel it, never to engage it.  Whether it’s a decontextualized Samuel Beckett quotation on failure, a Sir Ken Robinson “schools vs. creativity” show, or any host of Disney media, there is no apparatus for learning or transformation but only an avenue to taste and appropriate the feeling.

Most teachers care about making The World a Better Place.  I have argued in the past that energy toward this should be localized; let’s make our worlds better places and show examples.  Tomorrowland received poor reviews in part due to the lack of imagination and inspiration emanating from the film.  For the filmmakers, this could be a time to reflect on worn and weathered archetypes and develop some more dimensional characters for future media.  That assumes Disney is interested in the great, big, beautiful tomorrow beyond how many clicks/visitors/dollars are expected in tomorrow’s ledger.

About Rolin

Assistant Professor & Director of EdTech & Media at Seattle Pacific University. Consultant w/ RAM TEC. Work with faculty, teach students, explore non-formal learning spaces (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums)

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