Dir: Brad Bird. US. 2015. 130mins
A movie about optimism and the power of dreamers, Tomorrowland soars with such giddy, genuine gee-whiz spirit that it almost feels rude to point out that, eventually, it resigns itself to being a competent action-adventure spectacle. Drawing on the same widescreen ambition and kicky sense of wonder that marks his best films, director Brad Bird (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, The Incredibles) has assigned himself a daunting task, telling the story of two mismatched, forward-looking individuals through a narrative that moves briskly from family movie to road-trip thriller to mystery to blockbuster event film. George Clooney and newcomer Britt Robertson are solidly compelling, but Tomorrowland remains only a moderate success, its ingenuity, wit and enormous heart too often at odds with a ho-hum story and tentpole conventionality that the film tries so hard to transcend.
Tomorrowland stands as one of the few films this season that’s not derived from a comic book or is a sequel, prequel or reboot: In a time of familiar, safe product, will audiences come out in droves for a relatively unknown commodity?
Opening across most of the globe by May 22, Tomorrowland will pose an intriguing marketing challenge. Released through Disney, the film faintly recalls the studio’s live-action family adventure films of earlier eras, but its pumped-up effects and action set pieces suggest that Tomorrowland also has blockbuster aspirations. Clooney’s star power will be a draw, but considering that he’s more of a supporting player, Robertson (last seen in The Longest Ride) will also need to be front-and-centre in any ad campaign. Based on an area of Disneyland that featured imaginative visions of the future, Tomorrowland stands as one of the few films this season that’s not derived from a comic book or is a sequel, prequel or reboot. That helps make Tomorrowland unique commercially, but that could be its limitation, too: In a time of familiar, safe product, will audiences come out in droves for a relatively unknown commodity?
Written by Bird and Damon Lindelof (and drawn from a story by them and Jeff Jensen), the film looks at two characters who possess inventive, inquisitive minds. In the 1960s, young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) dreams of perfecting his design for a rocket pack, falling in love with a mysterious girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) who leads him into a secret section of Disneyland that opens into a parallel dimension. Once there, he learns he’s in Tomorrowland, a utopian city where future innovations are already at play.
In the present, a scrappy tomboy named Casey (Robertson) lives in Florida and hopes that she can keep NASA from scaling back its space program, both because she longs to explore the universe and because she doesn’t want her engineer father (Tim McGraw) to lose his job. Her life changes, though, once she stumbles upon a strange decorative pin: Whenever she touches it, she’s transported to a wheat field with a futuristic city in the distance. Who gave her the pin? And what is she supposed to do with it?
Whether working in animation or live-action, Bird has demonstrated an ability to be an ace showman without sacrificing heart or brains. Though Tomorrowland’s more muscular sequences will recall his work on the last Mission: Impossible movie, the proudly sentimental, socially conscious tone harks back to 1999’s The Iron Giant, which snuck a pacifist message into a poignant boy-and-his-robot tale. Likewise, Tomorrowland uses cutting-edge technology and oversized action set pieces for a story that, at its core, is about the importance of holding onto hope — even in a world filled with problems and cynicism.
The story’s heart-on-its-sleeve style is most winning in the early reels as we get to know young Frank and present-day Casey. Both are likeable dreamers who approach the world with wide-eyed fascination, and Bird perfectly captures their enthusiasm through sequences which emphasise the pleasures that come from following one’s passion. In these opening stretches, Tomorrowland boasts a buoyancy and aw-shucks excitement that put the film defiantly at odds with most contemporary big-budget cinema, which values edginess and snark.
The sweetness Bird brought to his Pixar films The Incredibles and Ratatouille is on full display here, especially as Frank explores Tomorrowland and finally finds a niche that will accept a nerdy outsider like him. Flying through the sky with his jetpack, Frank defies gravity, and the film follows his lead, offering a refreshingly earnest, light-hearted portrayal of boundless optimism. (This tone is accented by Michael Giacchino’s joyful score — not to mention the bright, clean, smooth production design from Scott Chambliss.)
Casey’s adventures in the present start off just as engagingly. Without overdoing the young woman’s spunk and resourcefulness, Robertson is a lively presence, conveying someone who is no longer a child but hasn’t quite reached adulthood, either. Like plenty of unlikely cinematic heroes before her, Casey is shocked to learn that, despite her modest upbringing, she has the fate of the planet in her hands. To be sure, it’s a tired conceit, this notion of being “the one.” But Robertson gives Casey a quiet intelligence that makes her destiny seem believable, if not exactly novel.
Bird’s staging, with help from cinematographer Claudio Miranda, succeeds in making Tomorrowland feel appreciably epic by summer-movie standards, but he also understands how to capture awe without being treacly or manipulative. Whether it’s young Frank flying around Tomorrowland or a hidden rocket ship blasting off from inside an iconic European landmark, Bird takes the time to let viewers soak in the simple, majestic power of his images, giving us a chance to get wrapped up in the same sense of wonder that envelops his characters.
But Tomorrowland starts to lose altitude once Casey’s mysterious pin leads her to the home of a recluse: the aging, bitter Frank Walker (Clooney). Soon, the plotting becomes far more pedestrian. For unknown reasons, Frank has lost the joy of his childhood years, he’s been banished from Tomorrowland, and he no longer is hopeful about the future. Consequently, cranky Frank and positive Casey will clash, a lot, as they learn to work together to find a portal to Tomorrowland, and Bird struggles to make their tense rapport meaningfully comedic or compelling. (To be fair to Clooney, though, his underwritten role doesn’t give him much guidance, forcing the actor to lean on his considerable weathered charm and melancholy eyes.)
Around the same time, the movie begins to explain its mysteries, and the reveals aren’t particularly original or satisfying. Despite some clever bits here and there, Tomorrowland devolves into a serviceable chase picture, leading to some awkward third-act twists and some politically astute commentary that, nonetheless, comes across as sermonising. (Hugh Laurie, playing an enigmatic figure in Tomorrowland, is largely wasted, his character’s haughty manner quickly hinting at the direction he’ll go as Tomorrowland rolls along.)
What’s worse, the film’s ultimate message about the audacity of hope versus the odd comfort of defeatism doesn’t tie closely enough into the events that lead up to the big final speech. There’s no question that Bird invests Tomorrowland with soul and spirit, but along the way the movie succumbs to the same blockbuster trappings that affect so many less ambitious films. As a result, Tomorrowland’s compromises are more disappointing: We can see the emotional, thought-provoking, vaguely subversive movie Bird wants to fashion. But for a film that advocates aiming high, it’s a shame that Tomorrowland itself gets pulled down a bit by the demands and mediocrity of summer movie season.
Production company: A113
Worldwide distribution: Walt Disney Pictures, http://movies.disney.com/
Producers: Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird, Jeffrey Chernov
Executive producers: John Walker, Bernard Bellew, Jeff Jensen, Brigham Taylor
Screenplay: Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird, story by Damon Lindelof & Brad Bird & Jeff Jensen
Cinematography: Claudio Miranda
Production design: Scott Chambliss
Editors: Walter Murch, Craig Wood
Music: Michael Giacchino
Main Cast: George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Robinson