Brad Bird’s trademark as a filmmaker is movement. This might not seem unusual for a director of filmed entertainment, especially one who specializes in animation, but Bird’s movies really move, regardless of medium. The Incredibles zips along with such dexterity that it manages to pay full attention to a family of five, character management well outside the skill set of many decent superhero team movies. Ratatouille takes place largely in a kitchen but feels downright athletic and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol found Bird making career-revitalizing sense of Tom Cruise’s indefatigable forward momentum (Doug Liman got some mojo back on Edge of Tomorrow in part by managing a pretty decent Bird impression).
Watching Tomorrrowland speed in circles, then, holds a sort of peculiar fascination. (The film opens today; Keith Uhlich reviewed in the current issue of The L.) Bird’s second live-action feature is too well-designed and, in parts, entertaining to be considered a total loss. But it spends a lot of time revving its engine: in a direct-address prologue featuring plucky sorta-teenager Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) and her reluctant mentor Frank Walker (George Clooney), leading into another prologue about Frank’s childhood, finally leading into the beginning of Casey’s story as she investigates the properties of a mysterious pin that seems to transport her to a retro-futuristic world whenever it touches her skin. It’s a neat effect, Robertson staying in place while her environment seamlessly cuts into (yes) Tomorrowland, the utopia we (and by “we” I mostly mean “baby boomers and a handful of less cynical Gen-Xers”) were promised by the ’64 World’s Fair, or the opening of Disneyland (where Tomorrowland has gone from futuristic to retro over the course of half a century), or whatever other mid-century pseudo-event of your (and by “your” I mean “baby boomers'”) choice. Tomorrowland, you learn (from either the movie or even the mostly secretive trailers) is a secret society in a parallel universe where the Earth’s best and brightest have convened to create that bright future—for everyone, though initially, Tomorrowland is invitation-only. And you know Bird knows he’d be invited.
Directed by Brad Bird
Opens May 22
The very talented Brad Bird (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) made a big show of turning down the directorial reins on Star Wars: Episode VII. “It’s rare to do a film of size that’s original,” he said at New York Comic Con, describing the impetus that led him afield from a galaxy far, far away, and toward a much more personal project—a futuristic adventure based on a Walt Disney amusement park theme world. Hrmmm.
Skepticism that Tomorrowland will be anything other than a glossy specimen of corporate soullessness seems borne out by its off-putting opening scenes, in which stars George Clooney and Britt Robertson do some fourth wall-breaking wisecracking in an effort to get the viewing audience up to snuff. Clooney’s Frank Walker was once a boy-genius scientist (Thomas Robinson plays the younger Walker) who stumbled upon a secret entrance to the titular alternate reality while attending the 1964 World’s Fair. There he befriended a plucky girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) and tried to win the approval of her stern father David Nix (Hugh Laurie), Tomorrowland’s de facto ruler.
Several decades later, rebellious teen Casey Newton (Robertson) receives a mysterious pin that, when touched, gives her brief entrée to this gleaming otherworld of rocket ships, jet packs and Space Mountain™. Her tour through Tomorrowland is captured in a surely digitally assisted but still exhilarating single shot that makes it seem (after the unpromising beginning) as if Bird has finally wrestled full control of the material from the Mouse House overlords. That sense continues as Casey goes in search of the now-grown Frank Walker, with Athena—who has strangely never aged—at her side.
There’s a Joe Dante-like kick to many of the subsequent sequences: a comic book store strewn with pop-cultural detritus from Forbidden Planet to Planet of the Apes to Star Wars is the site of a bull-in-a-china-shop showdown between Casey and two laser-toting androids. A mock movie poster advertising the latest in a series of postapocalyptic thrillers hints at some of the provocatively darker turns the script (co-written by Bird and, ugh, Lost ’n’ Leftovers creator Damon Lindelof) will take. And there’s a thrilling stretch during which Casey, Athena and Frank team up to escape from a creepy band of Men in Black, culminating in a spectacular setpiece atop the Eiffel Tower.
Then, sad to say, the film reveals its true colors. Those who criticized Bird’s Pixar-produced superhero tale The Incredibles for its vaguely disguised Ayn Randianism will have a field day with the third act of Tomorrowland, which posits this lustrous world to come as a utopia where the human race’s most imaginative citizens can brainstorm all of Earth’s problems away. All it requires is more benevolent dictators than Laurie’s dour cynic—who has inadvertently pushed humanity closer to destruction because of his simple lack of faith—as well as a United Colors of Benetton-esque recruitment program that cannily attempts to ward off any and all suspicions by being so multiculturally all-inclusive. This truly is a movie dear to Bird’s heart, even though it’s corny, childish gibberish writ large.