Here’s an odd one. We’ve somehow moved past an age in which basing a movie on a theme park ride seems odd, and now have a movie based on an entire theme park section. Thankfully, the person assigned to translate Walt Disney’s fuzzy World’s Fair future ‘Tomorrowland’ into a feature film was Brad Bird, a director incapable of anything less than sterling entertainment that feels effortless.
What Bird has created will undoubtedly go down as one of the strangest and most singular blockbusters of this summer season, even though it’s unlikely to be remembered as the best. The film has major flaws, but when Bird’s beautiful train set soars, it’s truly a remarkable work of popcorn filmmaking.
Because this is a rare blockbuster that arrives on thousands of screens shrouded in mystery, I’ll be careful about how much of the movie I describe. The overall plot is too vast and convoluted to cram into a paragraph, but I’ll try to play fair. Britt Robertson (‘Under the Dome’) stars as Casey Newton, a plucky young teen and tech genius who’s obsessed with the stars thanks to her astro-engineer father. She’s a special kid, enough so that she receives a pin from a mysterious young British girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) which transports her to a magical, futuristic world that seems torn from our collective consciousness (and Disney World, ‘natch). Casey only gets a taste of this special place and wants more. To have her next hit, she’ll have to follow Athena on a wild odyssey to find Frank Walker (George Clooney). As a child inventor of a rocket pack, Walker also saw this place as a boy. However, he was forced to leave for reasons that made him incredibly bitter about the experience. Only Casey’s warmth and spirit could possibly break him down and force him to find a way to return. As to whether or not that happens or why any of this occurred… well… you should wait for the movie.
A palpable sense of mystery hangs over not just the marketing of ‘Tomorrowland’, but much of the movie as well. As co-writer and director, Bird keeps his cards close to his vest. He has a clear message in mind that taps directly into Uncle Walt’s bright and sunny vision of the future, which used to define our imaginations before the cynical and rain-drenched dystopias of modern science fiction. His latest feature isn’t just a throwback to that specific brand of sci-fi, but of the old Amblin school of filmmaking where he began his career. (Bird was a writer on ‘Batteries Not Included’ and directed the best episode of ‘Amazing Stories’). On a purely visceral level, ‘Tomorrowland’ is a breathlessly entertaining work of sheer cinematic joy. For the first hour or so, the film seems to be constructed exclusively of set-pieces as Bird’s flowing cameras and visual wit pile exciting sequences on top of each other with reckless abandon and a distinctly childlike sense of wonder.
When Bird is firing on all cylinders, ‘Tomorrowland’ is an absolute blast. He uses the near limitless resources of Disney financing to create grandiose action sequences that take advantage of the cartoon surrealism of CGI rather than being limited by it (not to mention exploiting the family-friendly dismemberment possibilities of robots). Whenever the spectacle isn’t blasting audiences to the backs of their seats, the gently comedic characterizations will pull them in. Robertson delivers a surprisingly non-annoying eternal optimist. Clooney does his charmingly grizzled cynic thing. Hugh Laurie pops up as the eventual villain with all the snake-charmer charisma you’d hope, and virtually all the other supporting players are scene stealers. (Cassidy in particular delivers one of the best performances from a young actor in years, though explaining why would spoil the fun.) Bird delicately balances his tone between whimsy, action, speculative sci-fi, mystery and gentle comedy for 80 minutes rather brilliantly. Unfortunately, at some point he has to end and explain his adventure.
It’s worth noting at this point that the film’s script came from Bird and Damon Lindelof, whose name alone should explain the movie’s failings. A co-creator on ‘Lost’ and screenwriter of ‘Prometheus’, Linedelof has a remarkable knack for world-building and mystery-weaving, but tends to struggle when the time comes to wrap things up. The ultimate message and meaning of ‘Tomorrowland’ won’t come as a huge surprise to those who are paying attention, but the long convoluted speeches and backflips necessary to untangle it all does derail the movie as it stumbles across the finish line.
While it’s nice to see a summer blockbuster that concludes on ideas rather than CGI explosions, there’s a slight air of ‘Matrix Reloaded’ to the anticlimax, and those who already chose to dismiss Bird’s idealistic optimism as Ayn Rand nonsense after ‘The Incredibles’ will have more ammunition for that confused cause. Still, even if ‘Tomorrowland’ struggles to find a finale, it would be a mistake to dismiss all the wonderful filmmaking that comes in the race to get there. The film might not exactly be Brad Bird’s finest hour, but even a flawed work from that eternal crowd-pleaser is better than most of what Hollywood has to offer.