'Tomorrowland': Film Review

Walt would have approved.

Brad Bird delivers his long-awaited futuristic fantasy starring George Clooney and Britt Robertson

So it has come to this: A big-budget, futuristic, effects-heavy, star-driven, fantasy-oriented, audience-friendly, beautifully made, would-be summer tentpole looks something like a freak, not to mention a semi-risky proposition, because it is not part of a franchise.

So it has come to this: A big-budget, futuristic, effects-heavy, star-driven, fantasy-oriented, audience-friendly, beautifully made, would-be summer tentpole looks something like a freak, not to mention a semi-risky proposition, because it is not part of a franchise. But that’s how it is in the summer of 2015 for Tomorrowland, a sparkling work of speculative fiction (and wishful thinking) that could not be more “Disney” in the old-fashioned sense, but is dominated by its philosophical thrust against social pessimism and disenchantment. Theoretically, the required ingredients for a big summer hit are mostly present and accounted for, but the considerable question remains as to whether the mass audience of the moment is ready to embrace an inventive but less overwhelmingly Marvelous adventure fantasy than is the current norm.

In his own way, director Brad Bird, who wrote the script with Damon Lindelof from a story they cooked up with Jeff Jensen, has made a counter-present culture work that amplifies and synthesizes impulses that have driven at least some of his previous films. In Iron Giant and The Incredibles, he explicitly used his fondness for post-World War II sci-fi and fantasy as a motivating point for his massively entertaining but also thoughtful appreciation of the positive, can-do ethos of the period. The evil came from the forces that would thwart the sky’s-the-limit achievement of the world’s best, brightest and right-minded, and frustration with those who would impede excellence and forward-thinking on all fronts is the sentiment that grumbles and groans beneath the shiny surfaces of Tomorrowland.

Read more New 'Tomorrowland' Trailer Delivers Ray Gun-Wielding Robots (Finally)

The film takes its title from the future-focused section of Disneyland inaugurated in 1955, and is dramatically rooted in the Disney-designed elements at the 1964 New York World’s Fair — including the “It’s A Small World” ride, which promoted images of a pristine future marked by soaring buildings, sweeping highways, immaculate mass transit and perfectly functioning clean technology. Not a slum, traffic jam or pollution-belching factory was to be seen.

Tomorrowland opens with grizzled George Clooney as Frank Walker telling us, “When I was a kid, the future was different,” whereupon we see his young self (the ideally cast Thomas Robinson) enthusiastically toting his homemade “jet pack” invention (actually a modified Electrolux vacuum cleaner) to the World’s Fair. His creation needs more time in the lab, but while there he encounters an immoderately self-possessed, British-accented girl about his own age named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who will shortly usher him into a very privileged realm.

Forty-five years later, a slightly older teenager, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), also harbors fantasies about flying and the future, but they are seemingly dashed dreams; she’s obsessed with a Texas NASA rocket launch site that is now being demolished, a place where her unemployed father (Tim McGraw) was once an engineer. Her toy drone isn’t going to take her anywhere, but she mysteriously obtains something else that does: a small pin with a big “T” emblazoned on it that, when touched, instantly transports her to a beautiful wheat field from which she can glimpse, very much as Dorothy and her companions did when they arrived in the poppy field, an extraordinary city looming in the distance.

In this instance, however, what lies before the dazzled Casey is the future — be it an alternate one, an upcoming one or, possibly, a version that’s already passed. But real it is; she can walk around the spotlessly modernistic buildings (to an extent those of the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, designed by Santiago Calatrava), take the nifty conveyance that loops and swoops around them, observe the impeccably groomed and civilized people that inhabit the place and marvel at a world with no visible impediments to living a pure life of the mind and achievement.

Unfortunately, Casey doesn’t understand how to control her access in and out of this wonder world, so she’s bounced back to Houston, where the film bogs down in some soft and belabored peril involving, first, some suspicious vintage toyshop owners (Kathryn Hahn and Keegan-Michael Key), and then some Matrix-like robot police goons who come after Casey as well as Clooney’s Frank; the latter re-enters the action nearly an hour in to voice his disillusionment with what the world has come to be since he dropped out, explain things to the unquenchably curious Casey and, inevitably, enable her ultimate access to the heart of Tomorrowland and its mysteries.

A hermit and all-round malcontent, Frank was the instigating genius and visionary behind one of humanity’s great leaps forward. At first he tells Casey to forget all about it, angrily assuring her that she has been manipulated: “What you saw is gone,” he says. But he ultimately can’t help but see his younger self in her, as his optimistic side is re-animated by this kid’s excitement over what the future still could become.

One of the film’s most spectacularly fanciful conceits is to stage the launch of a rocket that’s somehow hidden in the middle of the Eiffel Tower, an event that doesn’t take place until Frank shows Casey the private office of the monument’s designer Gustave Eiffel — where he supposedly created the utopian secret society “Plus Ultra” with special guests Jules Verne, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla (with full acknowledgement that the latter two hated each other).

How many sci-fi/fantasy films of recent years have climaxed with anything other than massive conflict and conflagration? Whatever the number, Tomorrowland is one of the few to place far more emphasis on talk than action, which is what will probably contribute to what, for some, will make for a softer experience than the genre norm. The film’s general coolness and vision of a potentially serene future reminds more of Spike Jonze’s Her than of anything in the Marvel, George Lucas or James Cameron-derived worlds, not to mention other far more violent ones. As thoughtful and sympathetic as the intentions are here, perhaps it all goes back to the point often made about Dante: What do people read and remember? Paradiso, Purgatorio or Inferno?

Another issue that might serve to hold the film back with teenage audiences (it shouldn’t bother younger ones) is that the key reference points are saturated with a nostalgia — both specific in terms of Disneyland and the World’s Fair, and philosophically — that will mean far more to older viewers than it will to them.

All hands on both sides of the camera do outstanding work. Clooney seems to be enjoying himself thoroughly as the old grump whose creative flame hasn’t been entirely extinguished, but it falls more to Robertson to carry the film, which she does with great energy and appeal. Cassidy has an eerie presence that adds mystery to an already mysterious role, while Hugh Laurie makes a decided impression as an old cohort of Frank’s.

The film’s immaculate, exceedingly clean look owes much to cinematographer Claudio Miranda, production designer Scott Chambliss and the usual parade of technical wizards who know how to conceal every seam in the modern filmmaking process. Michael Giacchino’s score energetically pushes things along but can’t disguise the film’s moderate over-length.

Production: A113 Productions
Cast: George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Robinson, Pierce Gagnon, Chris Bauer
Director: Brad Bird
Screenwriters: Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird, story by Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird, Jeff Jensen
Producers: Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird, Jeffrey Chernov
Executive producers: John Walker, Bernard Bellew, Jeff Jensen, Brigham Taylor
Director of photography: Claudio Miranda
Production designer: Scott Chambliss
Costume designer: Jeffrey Kurland
Editors: Walter Murch, Craig Wood
Music: Michael Giacchino
Casting: April Webster, Alyssa Weisberg

PG rating, 130 minutes