It may not be the home run Brad Bird fans were hoping for, but Tomorrowland is still an imaginative adventure with a lot on its mind.
Do I have to explain everything? Can’t you just be amazed and move on?
In the opening frames of Tomorrowland, the latest example of a respected auteur working to expand Disney’s footprint, we are greeted by the warm, reassuring face of George Clooney. “When I was a kid,” he tells us, “the future looked different.” This is an absolutely true statement that conjures images of jetpacks, robots, and teleportation devices: the kind of future synonymous with The Jetsons, and that generations of children expected to one day see. The children that grew up in the middle of the space race, when mankind reached as far as the moon, and absolutely anything seemed possible.
Of course, that’s not exactly what happened, and that’s just one of many things Tomorrowland is about. One could say that it’s about too many things, and that may be true; some critics have seen a mess of a film struggling to escape the shadow of its corporate, theme park mandate. But I see a filmmaker wielding a blank check with impunity, telling the rarest kind of tentpole adventure story: one without a “franchise” to build, or a “universe” to connect, or fans of a comic or novel to please. It’s an original, and you can hardly fault director Brad Bird for taking the opportunity (and budget) Disney has given him and throwing the kitchen sink at it. Like his colleague at Pixar Andrew Stanton can attest, you don’t always get a second chance.
Clooney plays Frank Walker, who as a young boy in 1964 was determined to bring about the future promised at that year’s World’s Fair. Instead of waiting for someone to invent that fabled jet pack, he’s gone and done it, except it doesn’t quite work properly; to the judge of the inventors’ expo, David Nix (Hugh Laurie, with his natural accent for once), something just being “fun” isn’t good enough. It has to have a higher purpose. It has to change the world.
Young Frank is discouraged, until the opportunity presents itself to follow Nix (through the “It’s a Small World” river ride) into a place that blows his little mind and fulfills all of his wildest fantasies. “Tomorrowland,” it seems, is not just a slice of theme park piffle, but a real place, where the best and brightest that mankind has to offer are free to explore, create, and live lives free from politics and bureaucratic red tape.
If that sounds vaguely Ayn Rand-ian… well yeah, I suppose it does. It’s not the first (or second) time Bird has run with this particular thesis statement of “let the special people be special, and get out of the way.” The Incredibles was certainly about that. So was Ratatouille. Bird takes every opportunity in his films to rail against, as Mr. Incredible calls it, the “celebration of mediocrity.” Among us, Bird believes, are some who are just brighter and more talented than the rest. They can come from anywhere, and be anyone (even a Paris sewer rat), but once they’re identified, no one should stop them from achieving the greatness they’re destined for. It’s bringing the well-worn “chosen one” story trope down to a real-world level, or at least it is when it works.
The “special” of Tomorrowland is a teenage girl named Casey Newton, played by relative newcomer Britt Robertson with indefatigable spunk. (Hopefully you haven’t seen Robertson in Under the Dome, because that would mean you watched Under the Dome.) Her dad (Tim McGraw) is a NASA engineer at Cape Canaveral, or at what currently remains of NASA. Frustrated by society’s general lack of imagination (something she has in common with Interstellar’s Murph), Casey sneaks out at night to vandalize the cranes that are set to demolish the Cape’s famous launching pad, eventually getting herself arrested. But upon her release, she finds a mysterious pin among her personal effects that, when she touches it, instantly transports her to the same gleaming, utopian vision of the future that so captivated Frank.
Tomorrowland was co-written by Bird and Damon Lindelof, who everyone knows as either the genius or the monster behind the mythology-heavy television series Lost. The pair also get a story assist from Jeff Jensen, the Entertainment Weekly scribe whose mind-bogglingly thorough, must-read recaps of Lost caught Lindelof’s eye. Together, they have crafted their own “mystery box,” as J.J. Abrams likes to call it, in a film that is almost entirely setup for a payoff that involves the villain performing the kind of scenery-chewing monologue that would make The Incredibles‘ Frozone roll his eyes. It takes a full hour for Casey to meet the adult, Clooney-fied Frank, and even longer for him to get around to explaining to her (and to us) just what’s going on and what exactly is at stake.
In between, however, are a series of propulsive, clockwork sequences, where Bird gets to show off his skills in staging and pacing. As he proved in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (a film I unabashedly loved), the man knows how to craft a rollicking action scene with clear geography and enormous visual wit. I hate to throw around the word “Spielbergian,” but Frank and Casey’s frantic first escape from his ramshackle Doomsday bunker of a home, as killer robots converge on them, certainly captures The Beard’s signature mix of fear and wonder. Casey’s first glimpse of Tomorrowland itself is also quite fun: an unbroken take several minutes long following her through the city, gawping at the strange and delightful wonders around every turn.
The cast is game: Robertson is consistently appealing, in a role that — in the similar films I remember — would have gone to a boy; Clooney seems to be having genuine fun in the first “grumpy old man” role of his career; too-brief turns from Kathryn Hahn and Keegan Michael-Key provide a spark. But the film’s biggest strength, and the one I’ve taken too long to bring up, is the preternaturally gifted Raffey Cassidy as Athena, the eerie child who sets the whole story in motion. Her poise and ferocity reminded me of a young Hayley Atwell, and Cassidy commands the screen even against the seasoned Clooney, whose character she has a heartbreaking connection to.
I won’t go too much further into the mysteries themselves, as they’re worth preserving, despite how the film fumbles the ball at the end zone — descending into ham-fisted philosophizing and the kind of “well, just blow something up” climax uncharacteristic of Bird. It’s not that the film’s message is wrong — far from it — but that it’s presented in the most literal way possible. It doesn’t quite ruin a film that was thoroughly entertaining for the previous 110 minutes, but it’s frustrating, and a waste of more than one payoff the film had spent a long time building.
Visually, however, it’s a total treat; Claudio Miranda’s photography, alongside Scott Chambliss’s production design, is an at times eye-popping fusion of retro cool and Starfleet Academy gloss. Bird’s time in the animation world has given him a remarkable eye for detail, and the world he’s created is lush without being overwhelming. Meanwhile, Michael Giacchino’s rousing “let’s have an adventure” score does its darndest to distract us from realizing that the film’s just a bit too long. (It’s a big summer for Giacchino, a personal favorite of mine, with credits on Jurassic World and Pixar’s Inside Out.)
The final result, despite its flaws, is a film for children — anyone, really, but mainly children — who have had that 1964 feeling of wide-eyed optimism pounded out of them, and want to create a future beyond the rhetoric and fear our institutions feed us every day. It’s for dreamers (who have to stick together, the film tells us) and creatives, and anyone tired of our current dystopian obsession. And despite how most critics have received it, it has the potential to really be inspirational for a new generation of kids. You can probably count on getting a thinkpiece 20 years from now on how Tomorrowland is actually a misunderstood classic. Myself, I just respect Bird’s moxie.