Even when the U.S. wasn't at war, the original Disney Studios team was dedicated to a kind of propaganda. Walt Disney's vision of America—distilled and sweetened from his memories of Midwestern small towns at the turn of the century—became a shared vision in popular culture, extending through early television sitcoms. His vision of quality entertainment was so persistent that generations of schoolchildren came to see the Disney logo on educational films as an indicator that they were about to see something polished and fun, albeit educationally dubious.
The latest "Walt Disney Treasures" collectors' DVDs record Disney's overt propaganda: Walt Disney On The Front Lines is about how the studio sold war, while Tomorrowland: Disney In Space And Beyond reflects how they sold peace. The highlight of the former, the rarely seen feature Victory Through Air Power, illustrates Alex De Seversky's 1942 treatise on how the U.S. should counter Germany and Japan's aerial prowess. Beginning with a semi-comic history of aviation, Victory Through Air Power evolves into a persuasive lecture that retains its charge of fear and uncertainty 60 years later.
The rest of On The Front Lines comprises public-service announcements, declassified training films, and the Army-themed adventures of characters like Goofy and Donald Duck. There's not enough of the instructional material—though bone-dry at times, the how-tos often make better documents of their times, and they display some inventive animation—but the lighter cartoon shorts possess their own rough charm. Cultural stereotypes aside, the Donald shorts are especially funny, and even a little edgy in their impatience with military drudgery.
Tomorrowland takes a more high-toned approach, though amid the speculative demonstrations of man's first space flight or first journey around the moon, the Disney "imagineers" couldn't resist concocting crises and turning science lessons into true-life adventures. Drawn from the first two seasons of the Disneyland TV show (launched in 1954), programs like "Mars And Beyond" and "Eyes In Outer Space" have a realistic tone and look sort of like Alex Raymond sketches come to life. Their sense of awe and optimism inspired future NASA technicians, as well as the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. These shows envisioned hands-on astronauts and sleekly designed technology that isn't as disappointingly small and clunky as dumb old reality.
As with On The Front Lines, the highlight of Tomorrowland is promotional: a half-hour pitch for Disneyworld in Florida, which includes Walt Disney's original conception of EPCOT ("Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow") as an actual working city of the future, complete with bubble-domed downtown, a radial street plan, and individualized electric-rail transportation. Given Disney's genius for making the artificial look friendly and livable—a gift that transformed the American mallscape—it's stunning to consider what effect on the national character this EPCOT might have had. Maybe it's time for a revival, under a new campaign slogan: Victory Through Utopia.