Imagine a place where anything is possible.
Given Brad Bird’s track record as the writer-director of the stunningly crafted animated gems The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007), and his gleeful work on the surprisingly thrilling Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011), Tomorrowland should have really been better. Unlike the Pirates of the Caribbean films, which were based on a Walt Disney theme park ride, Tomorrowland has been inspired by an entire themed land, Tomorrowland, an attraction that exists at all five Disneyland parks around the globe. Back in 1955 Walt Disney established Tomorrowland as part of the original Disneyland to embody the sizzling potential of the future, as Walt believed that the next day would always be better, more thrilling and more exciting than the one before. With his newest feature, Brad Bird asks the question: ‘why has the future become something we fear opposed to something that inspires us?’ Written by Bird, Damon Lindelof, Prometheus (2012), and Entertainment Weekly TV critic Jeff Jensen, Tomorrowland is an old-fashioned family flick powered by some amiable, but contrived, sentiments of optimism and hope, inspiring the youth of today to fight for a world they want to see rather than settling for the troubled one they’re constantly told about.
Tomorrowland opens with a gratuitously cutesy foreword where two narrators, Frank Walker (George Clooney) and an off-screen female, introduce us to the picture; Frank grumbles, ‘When I was a kid, the future was different.’ We then flashback to 1964, when Frank (Thomas Robinson) was a young enthusiastic child attending the astounding New York World’s Fair, with a garage-made semi-working jetpack in his backpack, eager to impress the judges at an inventor’s competition, hoping to take the first prize — a measly 50 bucks. After losing the contest, Frank ironically follows a young watchful girl, Athena — a terrific Raffey Cassidy, Dark Shadows (2012) — into the ‘It’s A Small World’ ride when she hands him a lapel pin marked with the letter T. Without warning, Frank is thrown into a futuristic retro cityscape, complete with ivory-toned skyscrapers, glossy monorails and sleek towering robots, a heaven where one’s imagination is seemingly free to run rampant.
Before we learn why Frank had been thrust into Tomorrowland, or what he even accomplished there, the picture abruptly skips forward nearly half a century later and our second narrator, Casey Newton — Britt Robertson, who delivers what could be a star-making performance — takes over. At this point, we quickly become acquainted with Casey, an exceptionally intelligent young woman — a female Marty McFly of sorts — who lives with her father, Eddie (Tim McGraw), a former NASA engineer, and her little brother, Nate (Pierce Gagnon), in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Casey notices that the world is heading toward a downward spiral of destruction with hurricanes, fires, floods, and political upheaval threatening her future, along with her dreams of one day traveling beyond the stars, with the nearby NASA space program shutting down. However, Casey seems to be the only person asking the question: can we fix this?
Just like Frank before her, Casey boasts such keen intellect and a scientific mind that she, too, receives a mysterious T pin that whisks her into Tomorrowland whenever she touches it. When viewers first see Tomorrowland, it’s established as a limitless playground of imagination, with Epcot Center inspired architecture and shimmering technology, where the world’s greatest minds are free to create whatever pops into their heads, without interference from the greedy, apathetic folk around them. Sadly, Casey’s trip is short lived as the pendant eventually stops working. Desperate to return, she hits the road in order to find out who gave her the now defective item. Casey eventually finds answers in the form of the ageless Athena — an audio-animatronic droid recruiter who warns our heroine that she is being pursued by a dangerous foe — and leaves her in the hands of an older, cynical Frank Walker, as only he knows a secret way back into the titular Tomorrowland. With Casey possessing what Frank once had — a belief that anything is possible — the pair become intertwined in a race against time to save their world and the mysterious Tomorrowland.
I really wanted to believe in Tomorrowland; it’s not a sequel, nor a comic book film, which is particularly refreshing, given the current cinematic trend of dystopian gloom and superhero action. Furthermore, the picture boasts an earnest message that encourages youngsters to fight for a future that will ensure their dreams. Alas, Tomorrowland is a bumpy, uneven ride for the most part, one that lacks narrative propulsion; it’s too clunky and complicated for its own good and gets bogged down during its jarring third act by unnecessary finger pointing and philosophical lectures on the self-destructive nature of mankind. You see, Tomorrowland basically claims that we are a self-fulfilling nation driven by entertainment. With ‘positivity’ missing from our culture, the film foolishly states that if we embrace more optimistic entertainment, we can change the course of our world, and this will ultimately lead us towards a brighter and more positive future; oh please! For much of the story, the villains in the piece are also unclear — they’re not fully explained either — and we’re never actually given a proper explanation as to why Tomorrowland collapsed in the first place or why Casey has been labelled as humanity’s only hope — what’s so special about her? Additionally, some might feel cheated by the film as the majority of the flick takes place on Earth — where our heroes are chased by robot assassins in well-executed or sharply imagined action sequences which don’t really serve the narrative — with the wondrous Tomorrowland being pushed aside. Given all its anticipation, the hi-tech haven is only shown for a mere few minutes or in flashbacks and fails to live up to the picture’s promise of delivering a remarkable utopia. Rather than embodying an actual place, the notion of Tomorrowland almost becomes a state of mind … sigh!
Affably attempting to replicate a bygone era of filmmaking that’s evocative of The Wizard of Oz (1939), director Bird thankfully instils his picture with various nods to yesteryear including a sequence where a famous landmark splits open to reveal a vintage rocket, reminiscent of French illusionist and filmmaker Georges Méliès, A Trip to the Moon (1902). In addition, the film’s pristine visuals shine, with production designer Scott Chambliss, Star Trek (2009), supplying a number of dazzling set pieces. A battle in a seemingly ordinary house, which turns out to have so many gadgets, booby traps and hidden escape pods scattered around — that’s indicative of Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit — is certainly stirring while some of the creations in Tomorrowland are fairly inspired — it’s these short moments that infuse the picture with the sense of invention and marvel it so desperately tries to achieve. Moreover, cinematographer Claudio Miranda, Oblivion (2013), almost saves the flick’s misguided final series of scenes with his sleek picturesque shots.
Adding to the film’s virtues are its attractive stars; from mains to support players, the cast of Tomorrowland are a treat. Britt Robertson, The Longest Ride (2015), is impressive as Casey Newton, a refreshingly smart, spunky dreamer who’s far too enamored with scientific discovery to concern herself with romance or even her looks. George Clooney — in his first ‘blockbuster’ since, dare I say it, Batman & Robin (1997) — is great as the cranky Frank Walker, with Clooney successfully dishing out loads of cheeky interplay between Robertson whilst sustaining an equally terrific rapport with his other young co-star, Cassidy — a moving subplot involving artificial intelligence will surely tug at viewer’s heartstrings. The young English actress Raffey Cassidy surprises with her first-rate performance as Athena, balancing both playfulness and poignancy in a deliberately limited range whereas Hugh Laurie, Stuart Little (1999), turns in a by-the-numbers act as the disgruntled ‘baddie’ David Nix, the de facto leader of Tomorrowland. Comedy fans will likely be pleased to see Keegan-Michael Key, Let’s Be Cops (2014) and Kathryn Hahn, We’re the Millers (2013), pop up in small roles as a couple of geek enthusiasts, Hugo and Ursula, who run a Houston store chock-full of classic sci-fi movie memorabilia. Look out for the Star Wars collectables that have been carefully positioned in every frame, with Disney utilizing this set piece as a means of shamelessly promoting their recently acquired Star Wars franchise.
In point of fact, it would have been much easier to dismiss Tomorrowland as just another schmaltzy affair instead of focusing on the film’s merits and judging the picture by what it’s trying accomplish. When all is said and done, Tomorrowland is a good-natured family film that dares the young to strive for a better world whilst delivering a message about the power of hope and the need to start looking out for our future, now. With top-notch production values, genuine narrative intrigue and excellent performances from its leads, Tomorrowland is only weighed down by its jumbled script and a blundering final act. Nonetheless, given director Brad Bird’s impressive filmography — and the material’s potential for ‘greatness’ — Tomorrowland is somewhat of a large-scale disappointment.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
Tomorrowland is released through Disney Australia