Opening with the “gosh, gee willikers” approach of young Frank Walker to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York (side note, someone should do a piece on the cultural impact that particular world’s fair has had on popular culture) to show off his home built jet pack to Nix (Hugh Laurie). Their dialogue basically sets up the rest of the film:
Nix (paraphrasing): That’s nice… does it work?
Walker: Not really… but it could.
Nix: Then what’s the point. Next!
Of course, Frank leaves dejected but as he goes, we meet Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a young girl who sees something special in him. Nix tries to dissuade her but instead, she secretly gives Frank a pin which allows him to follow Nix and a group of older people to a place of wondrous imagination. This is a place with flying trains and robots who fix Frank’s jet pack (just in time, too!).
It’s glorious. It’s a literal wonderland where it seems anything is possible. It’s a set-up for a film Brad Bird, the guy who gave us The Iron Giant, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and The Incredibles should be directing. At this point I’m totally on board, even as we jump a half century into the future where we meet Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) a teenager in the classic Neo-Disney mold. She’s smart, feisty, and comes from a single-parent home. We see her break into a NASA facility nearby her house to dismantle the machines which are there to dismantle the launch pad because, as we find out in the next scene, her dad, the engineer, will be out of a job when those machines finish their work. Pop, it seems, is resigned to his fate, but young Casey, repeating what he’s taught her over the years, tries to inspire him with her “never say die” attitude that there’s always hope (and a well worn wolf parable).
Soon, Casey gets busted for trying to sabotage the work and ends up with the same pin Frank was given… in fact, it’s secretly given to her by the same little girl. And when Casey touches the pin (as we’ve seen in the trailer) she gets a glimpse of Tomorrowland, a Tomorrowland she is soon told which is in trouble and needs her help and only Frank Walker, now all grown up and played by George Clooney, can get her there. And now the film is off an running.
And I’m still with it. I’m excited by the classic science fiction references (an SF memorabilia shop worker is called Hugo Gernsback). I’m along for the ride as we struggle to get to Tomorrowland (involving a spectacular dismantling of an international skyline) and even when we get there, I’m still game when we meet Nix (who hasn’t aged due to some mysterious “milkshake”). Then we find out what this is all about… nothing less than the end of the world as we know it.
And finally, in the third act, I start to falter. Bird is a great filmmaker and the visuals are stunning, but all of a sudden any nuance he might have been building towards falls headlong into cliche and stereotype. Nix becomes a mustache twirling villain and the message, that anything can be accomplished if we never give up hope, is hammered in so hard there’s no way you could miss it. It ends up as subtle as an after school special. Any sensawonder is pushed aside, which is great if you’re 12 (okay, not even then) but as an adult, it would be much nicer if we could come to these conclusions on our own.
But the biggest thing for me has to do with the characters and structure. One of the nice things about stories, is we get to see our characters grow and change. We get to see them discover things about themselves and reach new levels. But not here. Everyone remains exactly the same (with the exception of Athena, the little girl who doesn’t age, but does, in fact, grow as a character). Remember that conversation from up top? Nix is still someone who can’t see the forest for the trees (and how he was ever put in charge of a place like Tomorrowland, even back in ’64, is beyond me). Frank, who as an adult is cynical and angry… is only cynical and angry because he still has his hope and is desperately trying not to lose it. Casey remains the same enthusiastic, plucky kid from the beginning of the film. No one changes or evolves. They may have learned things, but those just serve to reinforce what they already believed so there’s no life-altering revelations coming their way.
In the end, I did like the film. The performances were great, the design was spectacular and, if you don’t think too much about it, it was a lot of fun. It really feels like the kind of film we all believe Walt himself would have made (at least the public persona Walt) and I wish a place like Tomorrowland really existed. But what I wish more is that Bird had trusted his audience more and given us a film we could rally behind, rather than one we can point to and say, “well isn’t that a positive message.”