Disney’s Tomorrowland: A Source of Science Fiction Art

19 Aug

On disc 1 of the Walt Disney Treasures Tomorrowland set, there are three Tomorrowland episodes from the Disneyland TV show: “Man in Space” (1955), “Man and the Moon” (1955), and “Mars and Beyond.” All are documentaries with actual space and rocket scientists contributing on-camera appearances (including former Nazi Wernher Von Braun) and all contain elaborate animated sequences. All were directed by veteran Disney animator Ward Kimball and of course are all introduced by Uncle Walt himself.

While real life space explorations have far surpassed the science depicted in these shows (and probably answered all the questions raised therein), the science fiction aspects remain fascinating and aesthetically beautiful. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen science fiction art this detailed outside of the sf pulp magazine and paperback covers we used to get in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Each of the three shows offers a speculative animated sequence offering then-current ideas of what missions in space, on the moon and on Mars would look like. While the shots are mostly static illustrations, there is some animation showing the movements of craft and astronauts.

“Man in Space” has illustrative art of the type that might have appeared in a book on the subject for young readers of the time, with limited animation. It offers a view of what the earliest space missions to reach an orbit around the earth would look like.

 

“Man and the Moon” offers a little more detail in both its mission and its artwork. We see the construction in space of a space station designed as a launching platform for rockets to the moon, with one-man pods used for construction and repair.

 

We then get a live-action segment with detailed miniature models and actors in studio sets, led by venerable character actor Frank Gerstle (D.O.A., MURDERERS’ ROW, THE WILD ANGELS) as the captain.

At one point one of the crew monitoring the surface of the moon notes an “unusual transformation.” Here is what he sees:

No other comment is made on it. What was Disney trying to tell us? Maybe that someone got there before us? Face on Mars, anyone?

“Mars and Beyond” has way more animation and a greater variety of animated segments. There is a cartoon history of popular fiction’s obsession with Mars, referencing H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and culminating in a gag segment showing what a typical pulp magazine martian invasion story would look like, including a cameo appearance from a famous Disney character and the appearance of an unnamed female superhero.

There is also a detailed segment showing the formation of the solar system, the geology of Earth in its first billion or so years and the development of life on the planet.

One of the highlights of the episode is a segment showing what life on Mars might be like if its atmospheric conditions were a tad more favorable, resulting in all kinds of bizarre vegetable and animal life.

It all leads to a brief burst of trippy visuals that would have made audiences in the late ’60s very happy indeed, especially if this had played alongside 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968).

Finally, there’s a segment on what a planned mission to Mars would entail.

 

“Mars and Beyond” may just be the best animated documentary Disney has ever produced. (Close behind it would be VICTORY THROUGH AIR POWER, which was shown in theaters in 1943.)

All of this reminded me of why I was drawn to Japanese animation throughout my life. It has traditionally offered a similar attention to detail in its animated depictions of outer space stories. You can even see traces of this as far back as “Star Blazers,” which was produced in 1974 as “Space Battleship Yamato,” but first played on TV in the U.S. in 1979.

The first Japanese animated feature I ever saw in a theater was in 1982 at the Public Theater, PHOENIX 2772 (1980), and it told an animated saga of outer space and the quest for the title creature, a source of rejuvenation for a dying planet. It was based on a manga (comic book) by Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy.

It has its own take on bizarre life forms on another planet (a la “Mars and Beyond”)…

…and its own trippy visuals:

I loved the imagery in it and, ten years later, when I found a source of VHS tapes of anime (as Japanese animation came to be called around that time), I looked for more of the same. One such source was the film, TOWARD THE TERRA (1980), which I later learned was based on a celebrated manga series by Keiko Takemiya, the first female artist to publish a science fiction title. It’s a beautiful, poetic piece about a race of mutants, persecuted by humans on colonized planets, who flee in their own ship to try and reach the long abandoned “Terra” (Earth) of the title and start a new life on the planet of their ancestors.

When I look back at the detailed animation that Disney sometimes used in its non-cartoon features, including those cited above, I lament the fact that no one at the time thought to create a science fiction animated feature in this style. Imagine if FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) had been animated in the style of the space mission sequences in “Man and the Moon” and “Mars and Beyond.” How spectacular would that have been?

The paintings in “Mars and Beyond” are credited to William Layne and Gordon Legg. The paintings in “Man and the Moon” are credited to Al Dempster and William Layne. There is no credit for the artwork in “Man in Space.”

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