By Floyd Rock
With the success of their Pirates of the Caribbean franchise Disney has decided to look to another attraction from their parks to adapt into a major motion picture. With its visually arresting appeal and history as a significantly personal project to Walt Disney himself Tomorrowland was a prime candidate for their next theme park adaptation. With the 1964 New York World’s Fair as inspiration and intensions of creating a big budget science fiction adventure around the attraction Disney made the likely choice of Brad Bird to direct. One could hope that this was a recipe for success but unfortunately it looks like Tomorrowland is one of the bigger box office failures of the year. The movie opens with Frank Walker (George Clooney) recalling his visit to the World’s Fair when he was a young boy aspiring to be a great inventor. Arriving with a partially functional jet pack of his own design Frank presents it to David Nix (Hugh Laurie) whom is in charge of judging prospective inventors and their creations at the fair. Nix turns Walker away because his invention is both impractical and unfinished but a mysterious young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) gives him a pin featuring a large “T” upon it and tells him to follow her. The pin assists Frank in entering Tomorrowland, a futuristic city of boundless invention and wonder. After telling Frank’s back story the movie shifts to modern day, focusing on Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a teenage girl enamored by dreams of space travel and spends her nights sabotaging the dismantling of a decommissioned NASA launch pad. The mysterious Athena returns hiding another pin, which appears to be her last, in Casey’s motorcycle helmet. The following night when Casey returns to the NASA launch pad she is arrested. When released she finds the pin among her belongings. Unaware of where it came from she is amazed to discover that when she touches it she is given a transported vision of Tomorrowland. When the vision ceases Casey treks out by herself to learn more about the pin and futuristic city she saw and she meets Athena whom implores Casey for her help. The planet is in danger and they need to return to Tomorrowland. To find a way back into the city they must first find Frank Walker, now a pessimistic adult.
Tomorrowland’s setup is where it first falters. Casey’s story is our window into this picture and we should have been with her from the very beginning, learning about Frank when she does, and more importantly being awestruck by Tomorrowland when she first sees it. However, when the movie follows Casey it’s at its best. Her enthusiasm drives its own wishful idealism with reckless abandon and Tomorrowland’s idealism may be its biggest strength and greatest conceptual difficulty. Rather than an action adventure movie about stopping a specific event or definitive villain it’s a movie not only about the power of ideas but their implementation and the importance of positive thinking in achieving them while facing seemingly impossible odds. Unfortunately, since no major studio would ever fund My Dinner with Andre at the World’s Fair, Brad Bird and screenwriter Damon Lindelof have given their movie about the battle between positive thinking and indifference some action adventure escapades. This is where Brad Bird lives as a filmmaker. Channeling nostalgia for yesterday and prospects for tomorrow while wrapping things around action sequences that could only come from an imagination fostered by his work in animation, where anything is possible. Some of the movie’s creative high points include a raid on Frank’s home by a robot security force and a precognitive elevator assisting Casey in the movie’s finale.
The picture’s finale may be one of the central reasons that critics and audiences have failed to connect to Tomorrowland en masse. Conceptually it’s apparent that Bird wants his movie to focus on the mentality behind cynicism, trying to locate and correct the motivation that leads individuals to the conclusion that it would be easier to quit. Because of this the global catastrophe that Casey and Frank must avert is intentionally left unknown. This is a decision which is sure to meet a large amount of criticism but I feel it deserves support. It’s central to the crux of Bird’s argument and the purpose of his movie. To make the finale about stopping a bomb, a global war, epidemic disease, or any other specific event ceases to make the movie about the mentality behind it but rather about that specific event itself. It would be the equivalent of treating the symptoms of an illness rather than the illness itself. Unfortunately, the catch-22 of making an action adventure movie of this kind is that Bird is forced to have a final tangible conflict anyway. Something tactile for his audience to grasp onto in an engaging way and this makes the climax somewhat befuddled. Though this causes its final moments to be a little rickety Tomorrowland still reaches its goal fueled by unabashed earnestness.
Even with its shortcomings it’s difficult not to enjoy Tomorrowland and even harder not to admire it. Under Bird’s idealistic call to arms his creative synapses are still firing. He’s still able to deliver an inventive, enjoyable, and at times odd big budget movie. It’s a movie unlikely to come out of a major studio and given its unfortunate poor box office numbers will remain that way which is disheartening because even with its faults this is the kind of purposeful entertainment that studios should be making. It’s a picture for the dreamers of the world and at its best can be genuinely inspiring. Tomorrowland’s importance, both in context of the movie itself and its own plot, isn’t as a physical location but as a state of mind, striving constantly with ingenuity and positive thinking to make tomorrow better than today. Tomorrowland isn’t just a movie or a place, it’s an ideal.