There’s a lot to like about Disney’s “Tomorrowland.” It’s got George Clooney and Hugh Laurie, robots and explosions, a positive message, and it puts the fate of the future in the hands of two smart young girls.
Still, it’s hard to say exactly who the audience is for this packed-to-the-brim, sci-fi/action-adventure/family romp. The story is nostalgic for a more hopeful time half a century ago, there’s some serious robot violence, yet its overly earnest tone seems aimed at little kids.
It starts at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where 11-year-old Frank has come to show off the jet pack he built. He meets Athena (Raffey Cassidy, who steals the movie), an enigmatic young girl who takes him to Tomorrowland — a futuristic place that exists in another dimension, where all the great thinkers have gathered to make the world more harmonious and more fun.
Fast forward to present day and the focus is on Casey (Britt Robertson), an idealistic teenager fascinated with space exploration. One day she receives a mysterious pin that allows her to glimpse Tomorrowland. She, too, meets Athena, who introduces her to Frank (Clooney), now a grumpy recluse who lives in a fortified house far from town.
Grown-up Frank is bitter and disillusioned about the future. His home is filled with digital toys and space-age gadgets, but also dozens of TV screens flashing constant images of war, starvation, fires and floods. Casey pleads with him to take her to Tomorrowland. He’s unmoved, until a team of killer robots on Casey’s tail inspire him to change his mind. (Their escape in a rocket-launched bathtub is awesome.)
The ‘bots were apparently dispatched by Nix (Laurie), a scientist who lives in Tomorrowland but has lost faith in his fellow human beings’ will to change the world. While Frank and Nix butt heads in a disappointment-fueled battle, it’s up to Casey and Athena to save Tomorrowland and the future.
Robertson is delicious to watch, and Cassidy is a force. Clooney and Laurie each bring a predictably crowd-pleasing presence. And there are delightful, smaller performances throughout, including Judy Greer as a doomsday-minded schoolteacher and Kathryn Hahn and Keegan-Michael Key as the intense, offbeat owners of a comic-book shop.
There are also some eye-popping action sequences. Franks house goes into safety mode like a modern-day “Get Smart,” and the Eiffel Tower splits in two to launch a rocket from its center.
Director Brad Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof have created an original, aspirational story that pays homage to Walt Disney’s imaginative concepts of the future. The “It’s a Small World” ride, which Disney actually created for the 1964 World’s Fair, even plays a role. The film’s take on Tomorrowland’s sloping, floating landscape — complete with airborne monorail — looks like something Disney himself could have dreamt up.
Bird and Lindelof have both said they were inspired by Disney’s optimism about the future, particularly contrasted against today’s apparent apathy, which Bird characterized as a “giant cosmic shrug.”
But they get a little preachy and heavy-handed in the film. Most people understand that war, overpopulation and climate change are human-caused realities that endanger life on this planet, and that it’s better to try to improve things than to give up entirely. Yet, although everyone can use a pep talk, “Tomorrowland” repeats the message again and again, to the point of platitude.
“In every moment, there’s a possibility for a better future,” Nix says. “But you people won’t do it.”
Nor will politicians or captains of industry, he says: “All they want is to keep the wheels greased and the dollars rolling in.”
Are you listening, kids?
“Tomorrowland,” a Walt Disney Pictures release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language.” Running time: 130 minutes. Two and a half stars out four.
MPAA definition of PG: Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
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