(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)
These days, Disney has become the king of acquiring IPs and turning them into the cash cows of popular entertainment. But once upon a time, they also dared to collaborate with the top scientific minds of the time, and make art that could show us what we could achieve if we set our minds to it — like kickstart the Space Race.
With everyone stuck at home and with the future not looking particularly bright, it’s the perfect time for some good old-fashioned Disney optimism. And what better way to experience that optimism than with a pseudo-documentary that uses animation to imagine the strange lifeforms that could live on Mars?
The result is Mars and Beyond, part of a series of three documentaries that not only featured some of the best animation in TV at the time, but also helped sell the American public on space travel.
In 1954, Disney debuted a television series to showcase the still-in-construction Disneyland and its various lands. But when it came to Tomorrowland, there was no existing material that could showcase what the land was about. So one of Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” veteran animator Ward Kimball, set out to direct a series of documentary programs about the possibilities and wonders of human space travel.
The result was a series of programs aired between 1955 and 1957, partly based on articles in Collier’s magazine authored by German scientist Wernher von Braun and other rocket scientists meant to detail von Braun’s plans for manned spaceflight and sell Americans on space exploration at a time before NASA even existed.
The first episode, titled Man in Space, was nominated for an Oscar and followed the history of rocket science and what humans would have to face in space. It even ends with a call for the U.S. government to create a space agency of its own. The second, Man and the Moon, focused on humans’ fascination with the moon, as well as details of a plan to send humans to the lunar surface.
The last of the programs came a mere month after the launch of Sputnik 2 and it took a different approach, showcasing the history of astronomy as well as the origin of life on Earth. Mars and Beyond focuses on our fascination with Mars and how it influenced science fiction stories for decades, as well as wild speculation on what a trip to Mars would look like and what we could find there.
Compared to the first two programs, Mars and Beyond is more light-hearted and relies a lot more on animation, which ultimately works in its favor. Though the science is spotty and outdated, relying on what scientists theorized about Mars at the time (like saying the Martian surface had canals that irrigated vast forests), the animation makes this a highly entertaining, trippy, and imaginative film.
Indeed, the animation is atypical for Disney films of the time. There are striking images of vast landscapes with towering behemoths and all sorts of lifeforms that could spawn their own sci-fi franchises. The film imagines the type of life that could be found on Mars, from giant plants that travel across the land looking for sustenance to silicon-based crystallized structures. This is more like Fantasia, the pink elephant scene of Dumbo, and even German expressionism than the type of films Disney was making at the time. This section makes the entire film worth it, as even though it’s a big departure from the science-based approach of the rest of the documentary, the imagination and visuals on display makes it feel just like when you first watched the cantina scene in the original Star Wars, like you’d just unlocked a world of possibility.
Another aspect of the film that feels rare in 2020 is the extended segment devoted to the unapologetically Darwinian version of the history of the evolution of life on Earth, something you don’t see every day on a major TV network. Seeing such a big company go to such lengths to not only entertain by seemingly giving the animators carte balance to illustrate whatever their minds could come up with, but also educate the population so unabashedly, feels as hopeful as the future that Mars and Beyond imagines.
Whether a coincidence or a direct product of these films, NASA was founded and the U.S. space program began shortly after Man in Space premiered. Indeed, it’s been reported that President Eisenhower even called Disney to compliment him on Man in Space the morning after it aired, and to “request a copy that could be shown to top space-related officials in the Pentagon.”
Curiously enough, the description laid out in Mars and Beyond regarding how a trip to Mars would work and the technology necessary to make that trip ended up being very similar to the technology that allowed the real Curiosity Mars Rover to land on the Red Planet.
Elsewhere, the films became the centerpiece for what Disney envisioned for the Tomorrowland section of Disneyland, and it kickstarted a decades-long love for space travel from the company. The TWA Moonliner at the center of the park was derived from Man in Space, and though Walt Disney passed away before the moon landing, the live television broadcast of the Apollo 11 mission was screened at Tomorrowland for guests, and dozens of space-related rides would open at Disney theme parks throughout the decades.
Though the astonishing vision of Martian life from Mars and Beyond didn’t turn out to be true, you can now experience this entertaining, educational, and visually stunning film on Disney+. It’s worth it, especially right now.