Writer/director Brad Bird has had a charmed, if relatively short, directorial career. His debut, The Iron Giant, was critically acclaimed if not widely seen, a gig that led to two more highly praised animated films — Pixar’s The Incredibles and Ratatouille.
Just when it seemed he couldn’t get any better, he seamlessly transitioned to live action with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the best film in that series since the original.
He now comes back to the Disney fold with Tomorrowland, a fantastical flight of fancy that’s in keeping with his previous filmography and also somewhat of a departure. The film centers on Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), whose NASA engineer father (Tim McGraw) is about to be out of a job thanks to federal cutbacks.
Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a visitor from the future, slips Casey a magical pin that allows her a glimpse of what the years to come hold, but only for a short while. Determined to find out more, Casey tracks down Frank Walker (George Clooney), whom she discovers had a similar experience earlier in his life.
The two of them embark on an adventure that takes them back to the future in an effort to fix things that are going wrong in their present. It’s a bit of a convoluted premise, but it makes more sense in context. What doesn’t fully come together is how Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof (Lost) attempt to meld the two worlds.
Bird and Lindelof initially seem to offer a similar story to those put forth in mid-’80s movies like Explorers, The Last Starfighter and Flight of the Navigator, in which a young person gets to explore a world far removed from his own. But instead of letting the audience get lost in the wonders of a future world, the filmmakers here focus on the problems of the present, a decision that robs the movie of a lot of its fun.
In fact, apart from the initial marvel of Casey’s seeing into the future via the pin and a few other isolated moments, it’s strange how serious the film turns out to be. For a PG-rated Disney movie that appears to be aimed at kids, it gets downright depressing at certain times. That’s certainly not Bird’s intention, given that Casey is portrayed as the optimist of all optimists, but the feeling comes through regardless.
That’s not to say there’s nothing worthwhile about the film. When Bird and his crew do engage in some fun, it can be a blast. A sequence in a store called “Blast from the Past” yields all sorts of pop cultural treasures, including a few from Bird’s own past. And Casey and Frank’s initial meeting turns into an escape like none you’ve ever seen, including a flying bathtub and an old-timey rocket underneath the Eiffel Tower.
But the film’s third act just doesn’t pop like it should, mostly because it’s unclear what, if anything, Casey and Frank’s actions will accomplish. Bird and Lindelof aim extremely high and broad with their story goals, and while a few of them hit the mark, the most important ones fall short.
It is great to see Clooney in a role that requires him to be neither handsome nor charming, although it remains to be seen if he can pull it off on a consistent basis. Robertson is good and interesting as Casey, although she’s upstaged a bit by two younger actors – Thomas Robinson (The Switch) and Pierce Gagnon (Looper).
Like many a film before it, Tomorrowland has a lot of big ideas but fewer ways in which to impart them to the audience. If Bird and his crew had embraced the more fun aspects of the story, it could have been a bigger success.