Months after its release, I finally caught up with Meet the Robinsons during the holidays. Having read the excoriating reviews, I was expecting a train wreck of the first magnitude. I was instead pleasantly surprised to find ... well, perhaps a fender-bender of the 14th magnitude.
Is Meet the Robinsons a mess, or some sort of bizarre genius?
Whatever it is, it drove home what I've believed for a long time: We rely on a vision of the future, something that's sorely lacking in our society.
When I was a kid, "the future" meant gleaming white-and-silver buildings, people being efficiently shuttled back and forth on PeopleMover-type vehicles, flying cars, moving walkways, and crisply pressed, one-piece "uniforms" that would elminate the need for High Fashion. Most of those uniforms would have no pockets and a diagonal stripe down them. They were going to be cool.
The Future would be everything the Present was not: orderly, clean, happy and maybe, I suppose, just a tad totalitarian. But, hey, when you're 12 and dreaming of the future, you don't know what "totalitarian" means.
So, imagine my joy when EPCOT Center opened. This WAS the Future! My God, it was all there, from the bizarre architecture to the sleek Monorail trains to the perfectly clean (antiseptic?) sidewalks. EPCOT Center wasn't, of course, actually the future. But for a while, it was close enough.
That has all changed. Disney has, of course, decided EPCOT isn't really a showcase, a unique offering, a compilation of the best that global industry and the world's cultures have to offer. It's a Theme Park, and it had better start acting like one.
The basic problem with that idea is that it ignores what EPCOT actually is (which Disney has never been able to adequately define) in favor of what Disney management would like it to be (which they can write in a PowerPoint presentation). But, as the old adage kinda goes, you can put makeup on a pig, but you can't take it dancing.
By messing with this vision of the future so thoroughly, it's hard to scrape away the muck and figure out what EPCOT was supposed to be. Removing the wand was a great start, and the hope that those purple circus tents will soon come down is a step in the right direction. But then you're stuck with that industrial outcropping around the gleaming World of Motion building. You've still got those crazy rainbow colors on the Universe of Energy (were they always there?). You've got the "Imagination Instutite" goop all over Imagination, the talking seagulls (as cute as they are) outside of The Living Seas.
You've still got a Future that looks like a happy carnival.
Disney earns tens of billions of dollars in revenue each year. It lavishes untold millions of dollars on private planes, high-end lunches and lavish perks for its executives. So, why can't it get EPCOT right?
As Walt Disney famously said, and is quoted in Meet the Robinsons:
"Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things … and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.
How can Disney cite its own founder with those sentiments, but not follow them itself.
How did Disney mess up the future so badly?
And can anything be done to bring it back?
There was brilliance in that vision of the Future, as imperfectly conceived as it may have been. Although I absolutely can acknowledg that there were massive faults in EPCOT Center as it existed on opening day, its message was this: The "Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" that Walt Disney promised over at The Magic Kingdom could actually come to pass, and each one of us who walked through the turnstiles of EPCOT Center could have a hand in making it happen.
The Future EPCOT Center promised was an amazing one. It showed us all we could accomplish. It told us that the crazy notions of the gleaming city of tomorrow weren't all that crazy. Our Future would be an exciting one -- and, just across the lake, we were reminded that we're all working for it together.
Visit Epcot today, and you're hard-pressed to figure out exactly why they call the place "Future World," except that it's vaguely futuristic in some incomplete way. Its attractions barely touch on the promise of what lies ahead, instead encouraging us simply to have fun in the here and now. Anyone going in looking for inspiration, excitement, promise, optimism comes away with ... well, having had some fun at a theme park.
I just find myself wondering ... what happened? When it comes to Epcot, when did Disney stop moving forward?