Say what you will about Disney shamelessly making a film based on a segment of their already wildly popular theme park, they almost always try to assemble the best possible talent for the project. On paper, the idea of acclaimed director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) taking us to a futuristic world with limitless possibilities is a novel one that could lead to a great piece of sci-fi. Hell, if he were to do a good enough job, this thing could be as big a hit as the original Pirates of the Caribbean was, and launch a nice little original franchise for the House of Mouse (as if they needed more). However, as is the case with a hard break up, it’s best not to dwell in what could have been.
We start off in present day. Casey Newman (Britt Robertson), a teenager who has always been obsessed with reaching for the stars, is trying to keep a launch platform at Cape Canaveral, so her father Eddie (Tim McGraw) can keep his job as a NASA engineer. Yes, Tim McGraw is a NASA engineer, and it’s about as funny in the movie as it sounds here. Anyway, after being caught by the cops and making bail, Casey discovers a mysterious pin that when touched, takes her to a magical futuristic world with Jetpacks and Air-Trains as far as the eye can see. Fascinated, she goes on a quest to discover the pin’s origin, and finds herself the target of deadly androids who want the secret of this world to remain as such. Ultimately she comes into contact with a friendly android named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) who chooses to protect her, and Frank Walker (George Clooney), a disgraced scientist who was exiled from this haven for nefarious reasons.
Tomorrowland is something of a strange creation. It contains all of the pieces of a great Science Fiction film somewhere inside of it, but unfortunately, those pieces never quite gel together. The problems begin in the tone, which tires to straddle a line somewhere between a nimble adventure film, and a darker cautionary tale. However, there isn’t really a true commitment to either, and as such, both approaches fall a bit flat. For the first half, we’re treated to something of a chase film, filled with jokes, gadgets, and comic book style action. While Bird does excel at building up the wonders of this mysterious place through his magnetic direction, the writing just isn’t there to support it. The film relies on us liking these characters enough on the exterior to enjoy their personalities, and as such enjoy them doing cool stuff, but at almost every attempt of humor here, the only thing heard is a chorus of sighs from the audience. Since this connection is never made, the supposed emotional punch in the second half never registers, and that’s where things really go off the rails.
This lack of connection lies very much on a fairly weak performance from Robertson. She’s far from awful, but she’s also far from great, not really making a significant impression one way or the other. As such, she comes across as a fairly typical “golly gee isn’t science great” bore, and any moments of additional spunkiness are weighed down by bland delivery. It’s not until Clooney and Cassidy come into play, which happens far too late due the film’s glacial pacing, that our get slightly more interesting. Clooney coasts off his natural charm and genuine persona to sell Frank’s cynicism that comes from broken optimism, and Cassidy (who really is the break-out star here) gives us a being who may be in the form of a child, but is often the most wary and intelligent person in the room, and her relationship with Frank proves to be the most engrossing aspect of the story. We also have a somewhat fun turn from Hugh Laurie, who chews up the scenery as the underwritten antagonist.
It’s frankly a bit amazing that the point in which this film falters most is when we finally get to Tomorrowland. All of a sudden, a movie that was coasting on being breezy, stops dead in it’s tracks to lay out exactly why it exists in the first place. Make no mistake, this is a message movie through and through, and by the time the credits roll you certainly won’t forget it. While it is refreshing to have a Science Fiction try to take an optimistic viewpoint towards human nature, it would be even better if these views were expressed through good storytelling with these themes running through them, not a Power-Point presentation by the bad guy explaining exactly what is wrong with us. Bird gets a bit lazy in the spectacle department at this junction in the film to boot, making an already laborious third act even more of a sludge.
I can’t bring myself to hate Tomorrowland. Not only are there moments of fun throughout, but it’s fairly clear that everyone involved was genuinely trying to make a good movie with a meaty story, and that is admirable in and of itself. However, that dosen’t change the fact that this film spends most of it’s time stumbling through the race, only to fall flat on it’s face at the finish, and it marks the first significant disappointment in the career of Brad Bird. Perhaps a return to animation with The Incredibles 2 will re-invigorate him.
Hey! Look at that, I’m optimistic about the future, I guess this film wasn’t a complete waste.