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.
I don’t quarrel with reviving now-retro optimistic futurism, even if it’s accessed via Collectable Disney Pin. Bird is too knowing about pop-culture to not have some fun with the tension between nostalgia and forward thinking (check out the geek-paradise collectable shop Casey visits to find out about her pin, packed with merch from now-Disney properties like Star Wars, plus Bird’s non-Disney The Iron Giant, and run by collectors whose aims are less pure than they first appear). But let’s get back to the length of time it takes for the story to settle in with the likable, baseball-capped Casey and her search. How in hell did Bird not know to start with either Casey or maybe Frank, rather than both at once? And why in hell did Bird decide that to get to Tomorrowland, Casey and Frank must escape an attack on Frank’s rigged-up house and then teleport to the Eiffel Tower to take a rocket?
Both sequences are neat, especially the former, executed with the slapstick verve Bird brought to Ghost Protocol. But together, it’s a lot of hubbub before the movie even reaches its destination. Tomorrowland is an unwieldy opening that stumbles onto a climax—a bizarre spectacle from a key member of the Pixar brain trust. Pixar (and, for that matter, Disney animation proper) is known for a long gestation period, during which, according to various behind-the-scenes lore, the movie in development inevitably reaches a point where it feels lost. Bird is known for leading such projects out of the wilderness; he was brought on to rescue Ratatouille midway through, and that movie never feels less than his. Here, Pixar fans finally get an accidental look at one of those mid-production cul-de-sacs. This movie gets lost, in a jumble of sudden screams and ham-fisted withholding of information.
Any blame for the film’s stuttery, buildup-heavy screenplay will likely be assigned to one Damon Lindelof, creative force on overblown geek tragedies like Prometheus, Star Trek Into Darkness, and the TV series Lost. But Bird has a screenplay credit too, and the movie feels like very much his folly, not a for-hire project doomed by an errant screenwriting choice. For that matter, the movie’s faults only superficially resemble pitfalls of other Lindelof projects, and there’s still another name on the screenplay: Entertainment Weekly TV critic Jeff Jensen shares story credit, and Tomorrowland arrives at a thesis about the harmful effects of post-apocalyptic media that sounds like an Entertainment Weekly trend piece come to life. It could also be read as a weird dismissal of global warming warnings as negative-thinking whining, but let’s just agree that Bird’s outlook is generally too sprightly and warm to be the Randian conservative that a less nuanced reading of his work could—but doesn’t really, I don’t think—suggest.
And yet: Bird also directed this movie, so there are wonderful moments. Casey’s first tour of Tomorrowland, before she meets Frank, is a highlight-reel keeper, a winding parade of wonder in a single goggling take. It’s a passive scene—Casey can’t participate, she can only look on with wide-eyed amazement, which Robertson plays nicely throughout—but it’s assembled with such brio that it becomes a monorail track of invention. Much of the movie’s first half holds neo-Spielbergian promise, anchored by Robertson more than Clooney, and its momentary pleasures are nearly enough. But watching a Brad Bird movie that doesn’t really go anywhere further than some monologues about the nebulous qualities of hope, optimism, and innovation stops those pleasures in their tracks. You know the underpopulated island where the Incredibles go to fight robots and save their family, along with the world? Tomorrowland feels like that island made a movie.