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story.lead_photo.caption Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is a teen bursting with scientific curiosity in Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland.

Back in the late '60s and early '70s, Disney began pioneering what it lovingly called "brand synergy" -- commercial tie-ins among its properties. Uniquely positioned to take full advantage of its multi-discipline business aggregation, Disney quickly learned to connect the dots between its tributaries.

A Disney film would come out, keying into already existing Disney products, toys and games; action figures and baubles would be released in the wake of the film's popularity; Disney theme parks would embrace the new content in the form of rides and lovable characters; and various other Disney-related synergies would transpire over a global stage, essentially turning one semi-lucrative property into a nearly endless geyser of profit streams. It's what brought us Mickey pins, watches, lamps and plates, and Minnie Mouse pepper shakers, among other things. And it solidified Disney's business model as less a creator of content than a ravenous purveyor of possible branding opportunities it could foist upon the impressionable minds of young children.


75 Cast: George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Hugh Laurie, Tim McGraw

Director: Brad Bird

Rating: PG, for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language

Running time: 130 minutes

This, of course, all came at the back end of the operation, the sausage factory, as it were, safely hidden away from young, prying eyes who might take this example of Disney's supreme cynicism to heart over its relentlessly stated branding of optimism, youthful drive and inexorable hope-churning. But it became Disney's modus operandi nonetheless, and helped make the company the powerful entertainment monolith it has become today.

In the '90s, Disney realized it couldn't make such great films anymore, so it wisely ceased competing with companies doing it so much better. In short order it acquired outright, or owned the distribution rights to, beguiling Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's legendary Studio Ghibli, the late Jim Henson's Muppet studios, and Pixar.

Since then, it has also welcomed in ABC and ESPN, Marvel Comics and, most recently, George Lucas' entire Star Wars oeuvre. In short, Disney is snapping up properties left and right in order to ensure its dominance in entertaining the short attention spans of our small children. If it doesn't outright own your kids' childhoods yet, you imagine it won't stop until it does.

Given all this, it's hard to imagine a more Disney-tastic scene in a summer blockbuster than a couple of young female protagonists in Brad Bird's new sci-fi romp, Tomorrowland, forced to square off against a pair of rampaging, human-like robots in the middle of a comic-and-collectibles store somewhere in Houston.

Trapped in close quarters, the pair of heroines battle amid shelves lined with Disney product placements, using various Star Wars icons (an R2-D2 model; a sound-effect-emitting Millennium Falcon miniature; a plastic, buzzing light saber) for the young women to improvise as weapons in a pinch.

That might be the most utterly blatant tie-in, but there are countless others. In one scene, our young heroine successively downs two glass bottles of chilled Coke in order to restore her body's blood sugar levels after a dimension jump. The film's hardly a magical fantasia of youthful optimism; it's a greedy corporation's synergistic dream of branding and cross-platform franchising, brought to us in perky, wide-screen glory.

We meet Casey (Britt Robertson) enacting a small act of terrorism against a U.S. scientific installation: That is, she's short-circuiting a bunch of cranes and other apparatus at a failed NASA rocket launch site, to delay its inevitable shutting down and spare her hard-working astro-engineer father (Tim McGraw) another bout of unemployment.

Because she's so plucky, and resourceful, and gosh-darned optimistic about the future, she is given a secret pin one night by Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a robot emissary of a once utopian city -- known as Plus Ultra -- in an alternate dimension, now fallen to wrack and ruin.

With this pin, Casey gets a glimpse of the magical land and the clean, inviting futur-o city with its gleaming spires, space-age architecture and happy, multicultural citizenry, wearing primary colors and scooting around in jet packs.

Intrigued, she eventually tracks down a connection to the comic book store in Houston and, after the battle with the robots, joins Athena to visit a curmudgeonly crank by the name of Frank Walker (George Clooney), a once shiny-eyed kid bursting with inventive ideas, who lived in Plus Ultra until his banishment by the wrong-headed President Nix (Hugh Laurie), who has now used the city's advanced tech to put the creeping fear of imminent destruction into the minds of Earthlings, causing us all to worry ceaselessly about global warming, overpopulation and thermonuclear destruction. Once united, and on the run from another group of smiling robots, the trio return to the now decaying future utopia in an attempt to make everything right again.

After the disastrous Saving Mr. Banks, which saw Disney attempt to rewrite its own nefarious history of dealings with P.L. Travers, the writer of Mary Poppins, it has now turned its attention to the future of the company. In its estimation, there's nothing but sunny skies and endless potential for Disney's kind of "dreamers" and hopeful thinking.

Taking our very real angst and turning it against our collective cynicism (as Nix explains, his message of doom was meant to galvanize us all into action; instead, it has created a world of gloomy acceptance for, as he puts it, "a future that doesn't ask anything of you today"), the film creates the possibility that this aspirational optimism we're all missing can be restored simply by watching the movie and becoming re-engaged with the idea that we can make a difference.

It's a clumsy clap-for-Tinkerbell moment in which the stakes aren't just the imaginative powers of young children, but their ability even to conceive of a better future than the one we're all fixing to give them, with climate change, disrupted eco-systems and greedy capitalism run rampant, destabilizing entire continents in its endless gluttony.

That the film daring to send this hopeful message cost a reported $190 million and hopes to take in half a billion in grosses worldwide is merely a byproduct of all the good Disney is trying to do for humanity.

Not for nothing did our screening inexplicably start with a quick guest speaker representing some kind of high-tech doings that would have felt out of place at a TED talk; then, once the lights came down, launch into a series of commercials for other Disney properties; and end, as we emerged out of the theater, with PR mavens handing out little marketing packets promoting a new ABC Family show.

It's at this point in this perfect bit of brand synergy that you realize just why it was that the distant city view of Plus Ultra appeared so familiar, even in this wildly far-reaching future utopia: From a distance, it resembles nothing quite so much as the famous Disney castle in the promo-strip that precludes all its filmed productions. As they see it, the future, it turns out unsurprisingly, is Disney itself.

MovieStyle on 05/22/2015

Print Headline: Dominance of the mouse


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