Disney and director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) went through extreme measures to keep the story for Tomorrowland under wraps, which served to heighten expectations for anyone paying attention. The combination of taking a trip to a magical land, while getting an engaging adventure seemed to be a guarantee. However, Tomorrowland only delivers on half of that promise.
The movie opens with Clooney speaking directly into the camera and seemingly addressing his audience, which calls back to when Walt Disney himself used to introduce cartoons. For a movie that boasts an adventurous tone, the beginning is intentionally muted and instead of pulling the audience in, it actually keeps the viewer at a distance.
The movie begins with two separate stories. This is when you see the earliest cracks in the film’s structure. Bird never settles on who the hero of the story is. It feels like two movies storylines were mashed into one. The two leads literally take turns sharing their origin stories back to back. First we are introduced to eleven year old engineering prodigy, Frank Walker played by George Clooney. He discovers the world of Tomorrowland and for some reason he leaves the magical place and becomes a hardened old man.
In the present, we get the origin story for Casey Newton, played by Britt Robertson, and her introduction to the magical land. Casey is a young tech genius who finds a magical pin that transports her to the futuristic and utopian place by simply touching it. She enlists the help of a crotchety old man, Walker, who has been there before to help make sense of it all. Clooney is generally unlikable in the role, however it seems to be by design. Casey represents the spirit of youthful optimism, where Clooney is the pessimistic other side of the coin. They are supposed to be the physical manifestation of the movie’s themes and yes, it is a little heavy handed.
Tomorrowland brings to mind the childhood wonder found in 1980’s Amblin films at times, with younger characters caught in an adventure that is clearly over their head. While there are some thrilling action sequences, the movie’s plot is surprisingly thin for a movie wrapped in so much secrecy. It is clear that the movie was based on a concept and not a solid story that needed to be told. However, the moments of wonder in the film are very strong.
The movie’s tone and message is inconsistent. It is not a big spoiler to reveal that Casey begins the movie by committing felonies that could compromise national security and her father is able to simply talk her way out of jail. The movie constantly brings up the power of optimism, but it also manages to over look personal responsibility and consequences. In addition, screenwriter Damon Lindelof and Bird chooses to explain the theme ad naseum, instead of showing themes and character development through action. It really makes the movie drag in several different spots.
When Bird made the transition from directing animation to live-action with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, many were relieved and impressed by how seamless his transition was. However, it’s possible that the restriction of predetermined boundaries of making a franchise picture like Mission Impossible, may have actually kept his animated sensibilities in check. Tomorrowland seems to be preaching to the audience a lot of the time. While it doesn’t feel out of place in an animated feature, it proves to be overbearing in the live-action arena.
Tomorrowland is most definitely a family film first, that will play better to with younger audiences. There are several scenes of indisputable awe. Bird presents a majestic look at a hopeful future full of inspiring inventions and landscapes, that will truly challenge children’s imagination. However there are many segments of the movie that are flat out boring. The real problem at the core is that there is not much story. It is a sequence of fantastic events, strung together by a naive philosophy. There is enough creativity and wonder to entertain, just not enough cohesion or subtext for this to be a truly good film. Its extraordinary qualities barely out weigh the glaring flaws of the movie, which leaves an average movie-going experience.