Film Review #2: Tomorrowland (★★★)

tomorrowland_2Director Brad Bird has the power to entertain me, even with movies I can’t say I love (I’m the rare person who didn’t salivate over Ratatouille). His throwback love of the 1950s-1960s, his emphasis on family, all of these elements entertain me, and that’s what I found myself saying about Tomorrowland: I was entertained. Thomas Robinson’s Young Frank says at the beginning, “Can’t it just be fun?” And for much of the film I can’t say I didn’t have fun. Too often, though, the script wants you to focus on the fun to obscure the non-existent narrative, which works until the movie has to get down to brass tacks and, you know, explain things. But, until then, I found myself amazed by Bird and his production design, to keep myself smiling along.

Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is an eternal optimist struggling to keep her family afloat. When she gets a mysterious pin, it takes her to a place called Tomorrowland where everything is wondrous. Desperate to get back there, she enlists the help of a former Tomorrowland resident (George Clooney) and a robotic female (Raffey Cassidy) to help her restore Tomorrowland and save Earth.

If you want to know my litmus for fun: I found Jupiter Ascending to be stupidly entertaining, so take that as proof of my credibility, or lack thereof. And for much of Tomorrowland, I found myself going along with Frank, allowing myself to “be amazed.” There are some ridiculously amazing set-pieces, showing off Bird’s flair for both the past and present; the Eiffel Tower being the launchpad for a rocket ship, and Tomorrowland’s sleek, modular design are breathtaking. Bird is a man who knows how the present the past both as we dream and wish it to be – and that’s the crux of the movie itself.

The film opens during the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where Walt Disney presented both Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln and It’s a Small World. Again, Bird’s ability to evoke the past looks amazing in these sequences, and I wish we spent more time in Flushing Meadows. Furthermore, young Frank’s indoctrination into the world of Tomorrowland sees him sucked down a secret tunnel within It’s a Small World (actually filmed inside the famed Disneyland ride, underground tunnel excluded) in a moment that’s every Disney fan’s dream. It’s surprising how the trailers are playing up the “Walt Disney was a member of Tomorrowland” angle as that’s never mentioned in the movie, and I wish the actual Disney connections were furthered. If anything, the Audio Animatronic villains – who disappear and never bother anyone again – are hilarious, proof that someone needs to adapt Ridley Pearson’s Kingdom Keepers series.

Britt Robertson’s Casey is our main protagonist (another week of movies starring more than one female lead, by the tomorrowlandway!). Robertson certainly feels more at home playing the enthusiastic Casey than she was as the dour romantic lead in The Longest Ride. Despite reiterating constantly that Casey is “special,” the script fails to give her anything on par with the term; her positivity becomes a superpower and that’s it. It’s a shame, since Casey’s ability to “make things work” and knowledge of engineering would have been a great chance at emphasizing the message of young girls joining the tech field – there’s a message to hit home Brad! Instead, Casey is the audience, content to sit back and dream of a world called Tomorrowland.

Honestly though, the movie belongs to young Raffey Cassidy, as the robot Athena. Much has been said about her character’s relationship with Clooney’s Frank, and it certainly doesn’t play like Humbert Humbert and Lolita, no matter what Clayton Davis says! Sure, the two bicker like a couple, and Clooney’s saddled with a horrid line about Athena’s charm “and [her] cute little smile,” but I never felt he was doomed for an episode of To Catch a Predator. If anything, the movie made Athena a representation of Frank’s former positivity, a connection to the youth and past he no longer has, and the spark for the future he wishes he possessed. (Yes, more often than not Athena acts as a representative than an actual character.) Regardless, Cassidy should have been the star and I’d have enjoyed it far more. Her bad-ass fight scenes and cool demeanor notwithstanding, her youth enhances the imaginative dreamer element the film wishes to sell; a child certainly possesses more creativity than a teenager, right?

Bird’s heart is in the right place, and if there’s one thing Tomorrowland cherishes, its heart. Unfortunately, unlike past efforts, the script preaches when it should be illustrating. Tomorrowland itself acts a recruitment video to get the Casey there, but the movie recruits us just as much, giving us glimpses into Tomorrowland without letting us enjoy it. Furthermore, it fails to answer Casey’s immortal question, if the world is going to hell “How can we fix it?” The introduction of Armageddon is abrupt and quickly solved via….dreamers? The absence of government bureaucracy? It all plays like there’s something larger the script wants to say about the world but either can’t or doesn’t. Maybe because it’s impossible to change the world by dreaming. Yes, the message is to force us to be proactive, the whole “it starts with one” thing, but the elevation of those who are geniuses alienates the average Joe from wanting to change the world. Additionally, the script doesn’t appear to believe society, poverty, etc. have any bearing on our world’s issues.

Tomorrowland’s script is the ultimate problem, too often wanting to testify at the expense of its narrative. However, and it’s a big however, there is magic. The cast eagerly sell the premise, the first hour is amazing, and Bird’s childlike sense of wonderment is on display, even when the characters aren’t in Tomorrowland (the Blast From the Past sequence feels like Bird at his Ghost Protocol best). Maybe, like Casey, I’m an optimist, content to give Bird the benefit of the doubt because he’s never truly let me down. Sure, in a few months, I might revise my opinions, but for now I’m happy to foster an original idea, and say that those with a love of Disney could do far worse than watching Tomorrowland.

Read Clayton’s take on the film HERE.