Tomorrowland is a curious creation, with a bold visual design, but inert drama that struggles to shift smoothly between wonder and enlightenment, offering manic performances that fail to inspire screen velocity. It’s certainly an interesting picture when it wants to be. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always want to be.
Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures
Tomorrowland has two settings—no explanation and too much explanation.
The daughter of a NASA scientist (Tim McGraw) about to lose his job due to budget cuts, Casey (Britt Robinson) is curious about the world, but her optimism has no place in a society that worships dire news.
Gifted a mysterious pin that provides a vision of utopia known as Tomorrowland, Casey wants to learn more, soon guided by Audio-Animatronic, Athena (Raffey Cassidy) to the doorstep of Frank (George Clooney), a brilliant young boy who’s grown up to be a cynical old man.
A former resident of Tomorrowland, Frank was kicked out by Nix (Hugh Laurie), the leader of the alternate dimension, after learning the community’s secrets.
Pulled into Casey’s quest, Frank manufactures a way back into Tomorrowland after sensing the teenager’s hope could save the world from doomsday.
Director Brad Bird comes to Tomorrowland boasting an impressive filmography. As director of The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, he knows his way around big action, strong themes, and storytelling economy. Yet his latest effort feels like the work of a newcomer.
The sheer ambition of Tomorrowland threatens to topple the production at any moment. Channeling the universe of Walt Disney’s E.P.C.O.T. heyday and the bubblegum chase antics of an event film from the 1980s, Bird goes big. As technically sound as the picture is, the rest slips through the his fingers.
Part of the problem is co-writer Damon Lindelof. Specializing in movies (Prometheus, Star Trek Into Darkness) and television (Lost) that embrace the unknown to a point of frustration, Lindelof attempts another magic trick here, sharing screenwriting credit with Bird.
Tomorrowland has two speeds—no explanation and too much explanation. Casey’s bizarrely powered pin is only one bite of the apple. The story winds through apocalyptic visions, the death of science, Frank’s history with Tomorrowland, Nix’s plan for the alternate dimension, and Athena’s guidance, finding evil Audio-Animatronics with incredible strength on the hunt for the good guys.
The screenplay wants to whip itself into a frenzy of shoot-outs and chases, saving the big wow for a mid-movie attack on Frank’s home, which is tricked out with all kinds of defensive gadgets and hidden exits.
Lindelof and Bird don’t want to give too much away too soon, but once they delay basic explanations, they push everything into the second half, which not only has to wrap up the story, but also provide an understanding of the future. The production is so busy introducing things, often banal things, it forgets to enjoy itself.
Small bursts of joy are found in a celebration of Walt Disney’s contributions to the 1964 World’s Fair (including the “Carousel of Progress”). Bird even stages a minor action beat around the “It’s a Small World” ride. Clooney is also a highlight, with his irascibility the only performance that retains some subtlety.
Tomorrowland is more a misfire than a mistake, with mysteries that are rarely worth the effort to decode. While Bird whiffs big time, there’s no reason to doubt his talent.