There's always 'Tomorrowland'

Disney's latest exploration in futurism has one foot stuck in yesterday's nostalgia

Friday May 22, 2015 04:00 am EDT

Filmmaker Brad Bird found greatness as a director of such rich, ingenious animated films as The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille. Ironcially, his live-action movies have been the cartoonish ones.

His non-animated debut, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, serves as the best of the spy franchise, but has little on its mind beyond sending Tom Cruise and his team on a series of outlandish capers. Bird’s follow-up, Tomorrowland, offers a more thematically ambitious sci-fi adventure that salutes the scientific spirit of inquiry. But it also feels like Bird’s broadest, least textured work to date, even though its shiny surfaces can be quite beguiling.

Like Pirates of the Caribbean, Tomorrowland takes its name from an attraction at Disney theme parks. That’s not the only Disney reference in the film, which features an extended prologue at the 1964 World’s Fair and an elaborate joke involving one of Disney’s most famous rides. (No, not Space Mountain.) Plucky young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) hustles up to an invention contest, sure that his makeshift jetpack will wow the judges. He goes away disappointed but meets a friendly, eerily poised girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) who shows Frank how to literally visit a place called “Tomorrow.”

The action then jumps to the present day and introduces teenage Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a precious high-schooler whose can-do spirit bristles against the defeatist attitude of her teachers. Casey’s such a far-thinking science enthusiast, she has a late-night hobby of sabotaging NASA’s plans for demolition of one of its launch platforms. (Tomorrowland’s advocacy for the space program is just one example of its real-world editorializing.)

After Casey’s hijinks get her arrested, she finds in her effects a lapel pin that, when touched, presents a vision of another, better world, with working jet-packs, efficient robots, zero-g swimming pools, and more. The sleek, shining city seems infused with all the promise of technology, and none of the downsides.

Some of Tomorrowland’s best scenes show Casey trying to figure out how to use the pin: it projects a complete holographic vision, so while she can see and hear a bustling space sport, she’s still in her room at home, and can still walk into walls or fall downstairs. Tracking the secrets of the pin leads Casey to sinister, robotic agents, an equally formidable young girl (whom the audience recognizes as Athena, who hasn’t aged in half a century) and the middle-aged Frank Walker (George Clooney), a now reclusive, hostile inventor.

As pessimistic as Casey is optimistic, Frank slowly comes around to believe that the girl just might hold the key to averting a worldwide catastrophe — if they can return to that sunny, enigmatic place called Tomorrowland. Clooney’s performance suggests Bogart-esque cynicism, but diverts the actor from the laid-back charisma that’s his greatest strength.

Much of the film plays in a key of bright, family-friendly comedy, like a giant-budgeted throwback to 1970s Disney adventures like Escape to Witch Mountain or 1980s Amblin productions like *batteries not included. Particularly for a parent, it’s nice to see a would-be blockbuster that’s neither as smartass nor as self-consciously gritty as Hollywood product at summertime. Bird has a sharp eye for inventive, well-staged set pieces, like Frank’s defense of his home using a seemingly endless supply of high-tech booby traps.

Tomorrowland’s attempts at being accessible also make it a little bit facile. The cast and the script (by Bird and “Lost”'s Damon Lindelof) seem to be trying too hard, heavily embellishing the gags and moments of pathos, without shifting gracefully between them. The ultimate villain scheme attempts to draw a connection between the popularity of apocalyptic entertainments and mankind’s relative inaction in the face of climate change and other global problems. Whereas Bird’s intentions seem quite sincere, Tomorrowland tends to preach too directly to the audience, while making the plot points too convoluted. The big messages can drown out the nice little grace notes.

Like Saving Mr. Banks, Tomorrowland genuflects before Disney culture of the mid-20th century, with Bird’s film paying tribute to the company’s pristine futurism. While there’s plenty of material for both films to be nostalgic for, it feels unseemly that they’re so determined to celebrate arguably the most successful entertainment company in history — it’s not like it needs the boost. Tomorrow still belongs to Disney.

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