There is one huge problem with Disney's latest live-action adventure Tomorrowland.
The problem is that we've come to expect absolute greatness from Bird, whose name became familiar as the director of such animated feature films as The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille before he surprised all of us by jumping into live-action cinema by helming Tom Cruise's last turn as Ethan Hunt, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. With Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Brad Bird proved that he wasn't just a wizard of animation but also able to work wonders with a live cast and in a genre I'm pretty sure no one ever expected Bird to tackle. With Tomorrowland, Bird leaps back into Disney's family fare but once again is working with a live cast.
Now then, I have few qualms about proclaiming Tomorrowland as Bird's weakest film to date, an ambitious yet not entirely successful film that spoon feeds the audience its "Up With People" brand of optimism while running a good 15-20 minutes too long and occasionally acting very non-Disney/Pixar like by not trusting its audience to actually "get it" and downward spiraling into a sea of sermonizing good will.
Here's the thing, though. If you let go of the idea that this is a Brad Bird film. If you approach Tomorrowland with an open mind and a willingness to just go with it wherever the film goes, then there's a pretty good chance that you'll have yourself a mighty fine time even if the film doesn't leave you as breathless and bedazzled as Bird did with the almost legendary The Incredibles.
A bad day for Brad Bird is still a better day than a good majority of the filmmakers out there who tackle family friendly cinema.
While there's no doubting that Tomorrowland is loosely based on a Disney Park attraction, and I do mean loosely based upon an attraction from the original Disneyland, there's barely a moment that goes by when Tomorrowland doesn't also feel like a passion project for Bird. Bird conceived the film with Damon Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus) and longtime Entertainment Weekly writer Jeff Jensen and has collaborated with cinematographer Claudio Miranda (Fight Club, Life of Pi) in creating a family friendly, authentic sci-fi adventure that is refreshingly devoid of 3-D imagery and excessive techno gimmickry. Tomorrowland manages to infuse the technology of today into the spirit and feeling of the past while bringing to life a story about the world of tomorrow. While it's not always seamless, it's so lovingly constructed and natural in its presentation that it may take you a little while to adjust to the fact that you're actually being entertained and not completely overwhelmed.
After a far too lengthy opening sequence filled with cutesy voiceover narration that adds very little to the scenes that follow, Tomorrowland kicks off with the 1964 World's Fair and a young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson, The Switch), a rather brilliant and bright-eyed child who brings to the fair his almost working jetpack, a potential wonder of sorts that is immediately dismissed by a shady character played with appropriate shadiness by Hugh Laurie. While Frank's invention is not so politely dismissed, the trip isn't an entire disaster as he's introduced to the inner workings of a future world and the delightful presence of one mysterious yet delightful young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy).
We will eventually learn that little Frank grows up into big Frank (George Clooney), a jaded and reclusive man who eventually crosses paths with a young woman named Casey (Britt Robertson, The Longest Ride) , who shows up bearing a pin of unknown significance connected to unknown worlds.
To explain anything else that unfolds in Tomorrowland would really be unjust, because Tomorrowland is a film that benefits from having a clean slate while experiencing it. While you need to remember that Tomorrowland isn't a 3-D film and the special effects aren't going to be quite as much "in your face" as you may have become accustomed to, what really is "in your face" is the childlike wonder and giggle-inducing mischief that unfolds as Bird introduces us to world after world and scene after scene. Tomorrowland looks and feels like it has pieces of 50's Disney, 80's youth/teen cinema, and contemporary technology all flowing across the screen simultaneously.
While George Clooney isn't the first actor you think of when you think of Disney family fare, Clooney seems to be having fun with it and I'd dare say that his character's lack of development, a surprise coming from Bird, actually works in favor of an actor who has never been particularly known for an immense emotional range. That said, it's noteworthy that Clooney's top billing is for his name only as clearly the film is much more a showcase of relative newcomer Britt Robertson, who performs ably and whose spirit marches side-by-side with Bird's unabashed optimistic spirit. Raffey Cassidy is also quite the small wonder here, while Hugh Laurie playing smarmy and oily isn't exactly a stretch for the longtime House actor.
Tomorrowland is a film with far more flaws than we're used to seeing in a Brad Bird film, but it's also a film has many dazzling moments, emotionally resonant moments, and such an optimistic and good-hearted sensibility that you'll likely leave the theater feeling better for having seen it while silently acknowledging that it didn't quite all come together.
The good news, I suppose, is that Brad Bird tells us, repeatedly, throughout the film, everything may have not worked out as well as we'd have liked today but there's always tomorrow.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic