This movie is a mess. It has a dozen different strands of ideas that it wants to follow, it’s tone is all over the place, and the rules of the story seem inconsistent. The idea of making a Disney attraction into a film is not of course new, but as a whole “land” is involved this time, I think maybe the stitching required to get it all to hold together is just more obvious this time out. George Clooney is a movie star that can’t really open a film on his own without a strong premise, and he is invisible from this movie for most of the first hour.
Director Brad Bird has made some of my favorite films over the last fifteen years. He is capable of telling a coherent story but this one is just not quite there. You can see the ideas right there in front of you, tantalizing us with the notion that there is something deep and worthwhile in this experience. It just does not come together. It reminded me several times of the movie “Toys” with Robin Williams. There are things to look at, there are good performers giving it their all, but the premise is too fuzzy in the end to be anything more than mildly likable when it is all over. I ended up wanting to see the movie that they tell this story around, rather than the book ends that make up this structure. I think even the story of Casey, the young protagonist played by Britt Roberston, would have worked a bit better. At the end, the conventional issues all undermine the creativity of the imagination that the promise of “Tomorrowland” is supposed to hold.
The opening section that tells the back story of Clooney’s Frank Walker was excellent. The setting at the New York World’s Fair in 1964 is picture perfect. The Fair contained all sorts of advanced gizmos and concepts and a few of them are illustrated here. We never see the “Carrousel of Progress” but the song makes an appearance and promises us a great big beautiful tomorrow. Raffey Cassidy is an interesting young actress who may very well have been cast because of her resemblance to Angela Cartwright of “the Sound of Music” but more importantly Penny from “Lost in Space”. Baby boomers will see her freckles and the dress she wears in those early scenes and think immediately of the time period being evoked. Casting here went a long way in setting the scene, I think even more than all the special effects. The kid who plays young Frank is also very well cast to give a sense of those hopeful, early sixties dreamers of the New Frontier. His answer as to why he made the jetpack he has brought to the Inventions Hall at the Fair is a great encapsulation of America’s can do spirit. The contrast with the heroine’s project, to keep the launch pad at Cape Canaveral from closing down, is a little heavy handed but it is clear. We stopped being dreamers.
So I’m settling down for an uplifting movie about how we lost our way and might get it back again, when evil robots try to kill the pretty little science terrorist, and then they disintegrate three police officers out of nowhere and do it with a creepy mechanical smile. Wow, this is a PG rated family film? It features the same kinds of blue guts splattered we saw in “The World”s End” only from humans rather than robots. Watch out for the sudden car accident that also runs over a little girl. Nothing says family entertainment like that. Suddenly our whimsical fantasy film has become an action picture complete with a pint sized Terminator to lead us to the resolution. By the time Clooney comes back to the screen, the film feels completely different. The pursuit of the two science dreamers across different dimensions includes dismemberment of the robot pursuers in several grim but amusing booby traps. Then it is followed up by a Coke joke. The story meanders around trying to show us background material, but this is one of the few times I can think of where an exposition laden conversation between the two leads might have helped the movie move forward rather than slowing it down.
When story returns to Tomorrowland, it is never clear why things there have gotten as bleak as the other dimension we occupy. The macguffin that is referred to is incompletely explained and the visionary technologies that exist seem to be put to no better use than tracking kids down to kill them. Yep, that’s the joy of Tomorrowland. At the very end of the story, the characters try to redeem all we have experienced with a renewed promise, but they have not explained how the same problem cannot occur again or why a new set of dreamers will make any difference. Hugh Laurie’s Governor Nix asks at one point how we managed to have the dual problems of obesity and starvation simultaneously? It’s a pretty reasonable dilemma, I’ve got another one for you, How are we supposed to expect the future to be a place for our dreams, when it is trying to kill us at the same time?