I like everything about the new Disney movie Tomorrowland but the movie.
Does that confuse you? It confuses me, too. There's so much great stuff in this movie that doesn't even remotely hang together. And yet I loved the acting and the directing and the banter and the ultimate message of the film so much that I'm left feeling vaguely positively toward it, even as I realize it essentially told no story. Fittingly for a movie with this name (one of the original "lands" of Disneyland), it's a theme park ride — all build and build and build, and then a very quick, ultimately unsatisfying drop.
But oh, that build is very fun indeed.
Here are five things I liked about Tomorrowland enough to mildly recommend it — even as I'll acknowledge that it's a complete and utter mess when it comes to telling a coherent tale.
1) The theme is both novel and just weird enough to work
The center of Tomorrowland is a strange, futuristic city hidden away in some sort of alternate dimension (which was apparently discovered by a team of scientists that included Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, among others). In this city, the greatest thinkers of their respective eras gathered together to invent the future — and create a community that looks like the cover of an early 1960s sci-fi novel.
Clever minds and great inventors would be recruited from our reality to move to Tomorrowland, where they could develop their ideas, freed from interference. As such, it's become a great, gleaming place, the sort of "new frontier" you know John F. Kennedy had in mind back in the day.
Of course, the city has fallen into disrepair and closed itself off from our reality. And of course, our protagonist, a young woman named Casey (Britt Robertson), is just the person to figure out what's gone wrong. Joining forces with Tomorrowland outcast Frank (George Clooney) and a mysterious young girl (Raffey Cassidy), Casey aims to save not just the future of Tomorrowland but the future of Earth itself.
What director Brad Bird and his co-writer Damon Lindelof (who came up with the story with Jeff Jensen) are getting at here is the idea that the most powerful force humanity has is blind optimism and hope. The thrust of the film turns out to be — literally! — an argument against dystopian fiction and the post-apocalyptic scenarios that clog up our multiplexes, TV lineups, and bookstores. These ideas are, the film argues, poisoning our belief in humanity's ability to get out of tight corners and thus making it harder to try to fight back against the many ills that could destroy us in the future.
How do I know the film is about this? Because it told me, in a third-act monologue that stops the film dead. Normally, this would completely destroy whatever goodwill the movie had built up, but this theme is so completely out of nowhere and counter to pretty much any other "message movie" being made today that I still have to give it props for originality. And the film's last five minutes so beautifully drive this theme home — much more skillfully than the monologue — that it's hard not to leave with some degree of hopefulness yourself.
2) The actors are well-chosen and a lot of fun
Of all of the things I like about Tomorrowland, this is the one that many of my fellow critics disagree on. Plenty of them find Robertson and even Clooney irritating, with only Cassidy earning raves across the board.
But dammit, this is a fun cast, and the middle section of the movie — when they're just bombing around Earth, looking for a way to get to Tomorrowland, bickering all the while — is a tremendously enjoyable hour of movie. (Of course, it's smack-dab in the middle of a 130-minute movie, which gives you a sense of where this movie's problems emerge.)
Robertson and Clooney are well-matched as a 21st-century spin on Back to the Future's Marty McFly and Emmett Brown, and Cassidy has such a strange presence that you never get tired of watching her.
Yes, Robertson can be irritating, but that's what the film is asking her to do. She's that incredibly bright teenager all of us knew at one time, the one who had too many questions and kept asking them over and over and over again.
But she's also a perfect conduit for Bird's central idea. He often isolates her in the middle of the screen, smiling or raising her hand to ask a question. Or he'll set her aside using lighting, as if to directly call out what he's saying. And Robertson is great at channeling the sheer, overwhelming forces of hope and optimism. Maybe we shouldn't be shutting down that irritating kid, the film argues. Maybe we should be helping her as much as we can.
3) Brad Bird remains one of our best directors of set pieces
This is only Bird's second live-action film — the first was Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol — but his long experience in animation (where he worked on several seasons of The Simpsons before directing The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille) has given him a great sense of the most important thing any big-budget director can understand: geography.
A major portion of this film is taken up with sequences where Casey zips between our reality and Tomorrowland's reality, thanks to the use of a seemingly magical pin. While Casey seems to be in Tomorrowland, she remains in our reality, and that means Bird has to constantly make us aware of when she, say, walks into a wall.
Because Casey is figuring out how all of this works in real time, she doesn't really have anyone to turn to. Thus, Bird has to visually depict her thought process as she works out this particular conundrum, and he makes every single step she takes in the project completely logical. He's great at showing Casey thinking, before leaping to whatever conclusion she came to.
Some of the later action sequences — particularly the last one — lose a little something from these earlier ones, and Bird skews into some surprisingly dark violence in ways that might not appeal to family audiences (but did work for me).
But by and large, this is a great reminder of how Bird is able to keep viewers situated within the geography of his set pieces — even when there are multiple dimensions in play.
4) It's just nice to see a young woman heading up a movie this big
At its most basic level, Tomorrowland is a 1980s family sci-fi adventure. It's the sort of thing that would have been directed or produced by Steven Spielberg back then. It has everything you'd expect — a high concept, kinda chintzy special effects (that the film nonetheless tries to pass off as part of its story), an ad hoc family formed in the heat of battle, a villain meant to signify a philosophical concept (and not really working as such), and a kid missing one of her parents at the center.
But almost all of those movies were about teenage boys or young men. Certainly, Tomorrowland could have been about one, too. (The original script reportedly was.) But it's hard to imagine that theoretical film having the surprising force of the best moments in this one, and that's largely because simply putting Robertson at the center of a movie this big feels surprisingly radical. It shouldn't, but it does.
Casey is an unabashed science geek. She runs around the movie in hoodies and a baseball cap. She gets told at several points how special she is, how much the world depends on her saving it. And even at her most irritating, she's always the hero. In other versions of this movie, Casey would just be "the girl" or maybe "the love interest." Here, she gets to be so much more — and that's refreshing.
5) Somehow the emotional climax of this movie is about George Clooney still being a little bit in love with a prepubescent robot girl but having to let her go to save the world, and it's simultaneously not creepy and kind of affecting
Honestly, all of the above is true. I don't know how everyone involved pulled this off, but they did, and Tomorrowland is worth seeing for that alone.
Tomorrowland is playing in theaters everywhere.