For all its ambition, its good intentions and many clever insights into the state of our world today and our collective inclination toward morbid and pessimistic views of our world’s future, Tomorrowland, Disney’s latest effort to bring to life on the big screen an adventure based on one of its signature theme park attractions, fails to thrill or inspire in all the ways it should. Rather than soaring and carrying with it audiences hearts and imaginations, it crashes hard, burdened by unwieldy exposition, questionable casting, and ponderous pacing. It should inspire you to dream, but instead, it’s much more likely to just put you to sleep.
The storytelling premise alone is convoluted, to say the least. In 1964, young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson), an ambitious kid on the verge of inventing a working flying jet pack, brings his almost-ready-for-prime-time creation to the World’s Fair in New York, and presents it to the judges of a contest for innovations. He fails to impress the first judge he meets, the dour David Nix (Hugh Laurie), but he catches the eye of Athena (Raffey Cassidy), an unusual girl Frank’s age who has an eye for inventive talent. Against Nix’s wishes, Athena sneaks Frank a special pin that opens a doorway into a world beyond anything Frank has ever imagined, a Future World in the making led by the brightest, most inventive and artistic minds in all of humankind, all working together without the distractions of politics and bureaucracy, with the singular goal of creating a better tomorrow.
Fifty years later, that world still hasn’t come about. Casey Newton (Britt Robertson, The Longest Ride), the bright and inquisitive daughter of a former rocket engineer about to lose his job at Cape Canaveral as NASA dismantles and demolishes its now-obsolete launch platforms, notices how just about everyone knows things are bad in the world, but doesn’t seem to really do anything to try to fix it. One night, after her inventive and mostly-illegal efforts to keep her father employed land her in some trouble with the local authorities, she finds among her belongings a pin similar to the one Frank received from Athena. Upon touching it she gets a glimpse of the world Frank saw, tantalizingly close, but not close enough to reach.
Her search for a way to complete the journey back to that place of wonders leads her to the door of the now-reclusive and jaded Frank (George Clooney), who wants nothing to do with Casey, the pin she carries, or anywhere she wants to go. He soon learns, however, that he doesn’t have a choice as far as taking her there, as Casey’s search for Tomorrowland has drawn the attention of certain nefarious elements bent on keeping her and anyone else out.
But why would those in charge of Tomorrowland not want to open its gates to a world desperately in need of hope and optimism? Frank knows, and it’s why he’s so bitter. But Casey may be the key to changing it all, and in so doing change the course of the world’s future, and so the two unlikely friends join forces with an equally unlikely ally to force their way in, using every product of Frank’s gadget wizardry along the way to stay one step ahead of the bad guys and finally face their shared destiny.
It’s hard to deny that the ideas and the story behind Tomorrowland must have looked awfully good when laid out on paper. A film inspired by one of Disney’s most beloved and often-visited attractions at both of its signature theme parks in North America, a place whose spirit typified Walt Disney’s own inventiveness, ambition, and futurist vision of tomorrow, written in part and directed by Brad Bird, who after helming The Incredibles and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol succeeded Gore Verbinski as Hollywood’s current go-to guy for inventive, visually exciting film making. Teaming Bird with Damon Lindelof, one of the masterminds behind “Lost” and the re-tooling of “Star Trek”, must have made even more sense in terms of creating a film full of bang-zoom and golly-gee-whiz that would excite the senses and thrill the imagination, everything that a visit to Tomorrowland the attraction once did and still strives to do among its youngest visitors.
However, the final product churned out by this meeting of the minds and the cast and crew they assemble rather resembles a visit to Tomorrowland where you stand in line to get on Space Mountain for two hours, enjoying all that signature Disney attention to detail, interactivity, and theming along the way, only to have the ride break down just as you’ve been locked into the seat. Without question, it’s gorgeous to look at — this is one you want to see in 3D or IMAX, given the opportunity, with all the gleaming white, shiny Jetsons-style flying machines and Rocketeer-resembling jet packs — but it gets so bogged down in all its set up, all its hypotheticals, alternative history, and exposition that the film never feels fun. There’s never a moment where you feel actually transported to that place and time; just as Casey the character struggles to get to Tomorrowland in the film, audiences may feel like they never really arrive there, that it all remains remote and unreachable, and they’re just watching it all from a distance, rather than being immersed in it.
Casting doesn’t do the film any favors, either, and as strange as it may sound, the problems begin with George Clooney. At this point in his life and career, you’d think Clooney wouldn’t have any trouble at all playing crusty and curmudgeonly — he certainly doesn’t have to do much to look the part, especially when allowed to not shave for a few days and walk around in clothes that he looked like he slept in. He certainly gives a go, too, practically scowling his way through the whole film, but like any Disney illusion, you can see that it’s a special effect, that he’s working hard to hide the charm and charisma that he simply exudes by breathing. Britt Robertson actually fares quite well, in comparison — the 25-year-old who earlier this year took a turn as a lead in a Nicholas Sparks romance effectively conveys eight years younger with convincing pluckiness and a little help from wearing a NASA ball cap, a hoodie, and jeans through the majority of her screen time. But unfortunately for them both, Raffey Cassidy, the 12-year-old British actress perhaps best known to audiences for her TV work in Masterpiece’s “Mr. Selfridge”, seems to struggle capturing the right tone for Athena, and her scenes with her co-stars lack any real chemistry or energy. As for Hugh Laurie, he seems to have been cast simply for his eye roll — he may not sound like Dr. House while using his native accent, but he certainly can look as exasperated as Laurie’s well-remembered TV character ever did.
Highlights, aside from all that beautiful production design? For the hardcore Disney fans, the film is quite likely a treasure trove for park-related Easter eggs and “hidden Mickeys”, those ubiquitous silhouettes of Mickey’s head that Disney designers and animators love to sneak into the background and scenery of everything the Mouse manufactures for public consumption. Oh, and there’s a great in-joke regarding the logical evolution of those animatronics that have inhabited “It’s a Small World” and other similar Disney rides — if you’ve ever thought those were creepy, just wait and see the spin the movie puts on them.
It’s disheartening, really, that the film doesn’t work the way it should, because it really does have something to say about the direction our world has headed in terms of pessimism, apathy, and resignation due to the cynicism perpetuated by our 24-hour-news cycle and constantly being fed a steady audio and visual diet of humanity’s faults and failings. Like last year’s Interstellar, which actually showed us a possible future where looking to the stars for our future was actively discouraged and disparaged because of its impracticality, Tomorrowland points a not-so-subtle finger at the forces in our society that simply make it easier for most people to accept that the world is going to hell and there’s nothing anyone can do or even should do to try to fix it. It makes the case that too often in our world people are encouraged to give up on their dreams, to grow up and look down at the world around them rather than imagine the possibilities of what may lay beyond, and in so doing we’re more eager to embrace the inevitability of our doom rather than lifting a finger to do something about it. These are important ideas, and whether or not the these ideas actually resonate with mass audiences may itself be indicative of how resistant we have become to optimism in our entertainment, that things dark, dingy, and depressing just make more sense to us because it’s what we’re constantly surrounded with. It’s more familiar, and it takes less effort to digest.
But in the course of building a story, a script, and a film experience around these very important ideas, Bird, Lindelof, and the minds behind Tomorrowland the film fail to balance all that heady stuff with the fun that should come along with any Disney experience, animated, live action, or in real life.
After all, you don’t go to Tomorrowland at Disneyland or the Magic Kingdom to listen to a well-intentioned lecture on why it’s important that you keep dreaming and you never give up. You go there to be amazed and to have fun — the dreaming and inspiration comes after.
Starring George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key. Directed by Brad Bird.
Running Time: 130 minutes
Rated PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language.