As someone who grew up on Disney’s 50s and 60s live-action movies, full of innocent adventure-seeking and charming idealism, I have to admit that Tomorrowland filled me with a warm and fuzzy feeling of nostalgia. Even though it’s technically about the future, or at least a futuristic utopian alternate dimension, its heart belongs to the proudly corny, unassuming, and non-ironic children’s films of yesteryear, the ones that simply promoted the value of imagination and innovation, wrapped around adventures full of wonder and awe.
I’m not sure if such an old-fashioned approach on such a gigantic scale will attract the ironically detached and overtly cynical children of today, only time will tell if Disney’s gamble on yet another movie based on one of their theme park attractions will pay off. All I know for now is that my inner child had a blast.
Thematically, Tomorrowland is Interstellar for children. Both films promote the agenda that our world can be saved through imagination, innovation, a healthy love of science, and hope, as opposed to cynicism, laziness, and moral resignation. Yes, it does relay a corny and obvious message as it attempts to fill children with a sense of genuine wonder that’s unfortunately missing from popular culture these days, but it does it with co-writer and director Brad Bird’s trademark devious sense of fun and humor attached.
Bird’s affection towards the 50s and 60s B-movies he grew up watching is what gives most of his films their charm, from the 60s groovy spy thriller aesthetic of The Incredibles, to the 50s sci-fi look and feel of The Iron Giant. With Tomorrowland, his second live-action feature after Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which was easily the best installment in an overrated franchise, Bird shows a similar affection towards the bright and optimistic kids’ movies of the past, while expertly combining that approach with the most breathtaking special effects the movie’s giant budget could buy.
Tomorrowland takes place in a world where no one’s willing to move a muscle to help the crumbling planet, i.e. present day Earth. After getting caught trying to sabotage the destruction of a rocket launcher at NASA because she’s mad that people are not interested in scientific exploration anymore (Here’s another Interstellar connection), young science prodigy Casey (Britt Robertson) finds a mysterious button amongst her possessions after her NASA engineer father (Tim McGraw) bails her out. As soon as she touches the button, Casey finds herself in a futuristic utopia that promotes imagination, intelligence, and awe.
Even though this world, which exists in a parallel dimension, is supposed to represent our possible bright and hopeful future, it has a fascinating retro feel to it, as if we’re watching a prediction of our present from the 60s. It’s full of sparkling white skyscrapers, spiffy hovercars and hoversubway trains, and my favorite, a colossal anti-gravity pool with extra layers for some extreme diving. This world, dubbed Tomorrowland, is a realization of Casey’s dreams, but her access to it through the button is merely an illusion. While exploring Tomorrowland via the button, Casey’s still physically in her own world. Some of the most amusing gags in the movie involve Casey trying to navigate her world’s physics while trying to find out more about Tomorrowland.
It turns out that Casey was chosen by Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a surprisingly mature little girl who has a curious penchant for not aging a single day over many decades, who was looking for true dreamers and optimists to help her with a grave issue that’s destroying Tomorrowland. Athena sends Casey on a wild adventure to find and convince Frank Walker (George Clooney), a cranky inventor (Is there any other kind?) who got kicked out of Tomorrowland because of a dangerous device he invented. From this point on, a dangerous mission to return to Tomorrowland begins, full of creepily polite killer robots, hidden inter-dimensional rockets, and psychotic comic book store owners (Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn in a hilarious laser battle sequence chock full of nerdy easter eggs). Even though the overall tone of the film owes a lot to 60s Disney, the goofy energy of the action sequences has a whiff of Doctor Who in them.
The success of Tomorrowland lies in the journey rather than the destination. Unfortunately, once we get to the titular location, we’re treated to a disappointingly typical third act of any generic modern blockbuster. (Mild spoiler) Once again, we get a young protagonist who turns out to be "special", the only one who can save the world from destruction. Once again, the bad guy monologues his entire plan to our protagonists for no discernible reason, before we get a boring battle scene full of CGI robots and explosions. At least this time the unnecessary climactic fight takes up around ten minutes; instead of the usual forty-five to an hour we get in overblown junk like the final Hobbit move.
Aside from its cliché-ridden finale, Tomorrowland is a decidedly simple yet effective children’s film that’s handmade for dreamers and optimists, full of breathtaking visual grandeur. As a thirtysomething jaded film critic, I can tear apart the problematic third act for days on end, but I also have to be honest with myself and admit that if I watched Tomorrowland when I was ten, it would have become my favorite movie before I even left the theatre.