Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Tomorrowland is admittedly ambitious and told with a sense of visual splendor in its first half, but the second half fails to fulfill the promises of its convoluted storyline. Director Brad Bird has moved his career away from animation (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille) toward action films (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), even steering toward live-action science fiction, a genre that would assumedly fit him well. Yet the adventure here hinges on the triteness of the script, which offers many impassioned ideas that fall remarkably short of payoff in the film’s final act. As a piece of Disney filmmaking, it’s a genius ploy at making their theme park properties into other forms of merchandising; imagine the Tomorrowland posters and toys being sold in gift shops in Tomorrowland itself! The grating effect that the film instills in its opening moments involving a journey through Disneyland reminds the audience that, despite the film aiming for original ideas, it’s still a product on the Disney assembly line. I like Brad Bird, and I like his ideas; they just don’t add up to enough emotional power for the story to warrant artistic merit.
Tomorrowland is a world shrouded in secrecy, largely due to Disney’s sly marketing campaign. For that reason, I won’t dive into too many specifics. The film’s protagonist is Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a teenager bursting with scientific curiosity under the wing of her father, Eddie (Tim McGraw), who is a NASA engineer. Her interest in space exploration leads to her breaking into a NASA site and aiming to stop a demolition; this leads to her being discovered by a young girl that introduces her to Tomorrowland. Casey sees all of the technological advancements and the futuristic potential of the world, and becomes ravenous for an improved world. Her optimism is a rarity, as many observe, particularly noted by a former Tomorrowland enthusiast named Frank Walker (George Clooney, who effectively is not introduced until the halfway mark). As a young boy, he was not only introduced to Tomorrowland, but also gifted the opportunity to live there. The human leader of that adventure, Nix (Hugh Laurie), had a falling out with Frank that led to their embattled relationship and his future difficulty in reaching Tomorrowland. Talks regarding existentialism, the end of the world, the potential of the future, optimism vs. pessimism, and the ability of art to change the world transpire.
If that seems intentionally vague and confusing, that’s largely because the film’s plot remains shrouded even to the viewer until about the second act. That leads to a deliberately confusing narrative with ironically impressive ambition. Bird’s vision of Tomorrowland is vibrant and feels like it’s being seen through a child’s eyes; that’s both a testament to the kinetic filmmaking style and the desire for storytelling from the protagonist’s perspective. When ideas regarding robots are introduced and other sci-fi lore come into play, the story feels less impactful and more formulaic. Its ideas and scope are eerily reminiscent to last year’s sci-fi epic Interstellar, aiming to forebode about the ramifications of our actions now for its effect on the future. The most surprisingly affecting scene in the film is a monologue delivered by Hugh Laurie near the conclusion, which acts as a bit too on-the-nose but reminded me of the power of Charlie Chaplin’s monologue during the finale of The Great Dictator. It’s that good. But the story surrounding that moment feels like a conventional blockbuster with big action scenes just for the sake of having them. Tomorrowland has the remnants of a great story, albeit one where Disney stripped it for the marketable, sellable parts.
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)