What do you get when you put one perpetually optimistic scientifically curious teenager with one former boy-genius now middle aged man jaded by disillusionment on a mission to find a mysterious place in time and space? A quintessential Disney film that somehow manages to be an action-adventure-secret joyride with a surprisingly funny cast that tries to revive the idea that the future should be full of hope and possibility.
Young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) pays a visit to the 1964 World’s Fair with his home-made jetpack that doesn’t entirely work but full of hope that it can inspire. He’s shot down by David Nix (Hugh Laurie) but the young Athena (Raffey Cassidy) takes a shine to him and gives him a magic pin. The next thing he knows he’s magically transported to a future world called ‘Tomorrowland’ where all the brightest minds work together to make a better future for all humankind. Sometime in the present day, clever teenager Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) bombarded by the depressing reminder that the world is doomed fervently asks one of her teachers “But can we fix it?” as she longs for a world that’s better. After a run-in with the local cops she finds herself in possession of the same magical pin and finds herself briefly transported to ‘Tomorrowland’. In an attempt to get back there, she joins forces with the now middle-aged Frank (George Clooney) but when they arrive they realise that the future of the whole world is at stake.
Leading up to the release of this film there was much secrecy surrounding the plot. The teaser trailers gave us hints at the idea of a place where anything was possible and that it was futuristic but never any indication of whether it was real or not. Director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) has teamed up with Damon Lindelof (Lost) and Jeff Jensen to write a story that was inspired by Disney’s own theme parks particularly that of Epcot and bring it to the big screen. Places that Walt Disney himself imagined to be sustainable and communities for people to live in, in the future. Tomorrowland’s strength lies in its ability to inspire and generate wonder. Something that is fundamentally a Disney trait and the writing team has managed to do this in spades. Visually it’s marvelous to watch, particularly the scenes where Newton first encounters her magic ‘T’ pin and gets transported back and forth between her reality and the Tomorrowland reality. Or there’s Walker’s crazy booby-trapped house that trips up their pursuers as they manage to escape in a rocket-propelled bathtub. At times you feel like you’re sitting in on a Disney rollercoaster ride, particularly the Eiffel Tower rocket sequence, and you just have to hold on for the next scene. This sense of wonder and inspiration drives the undercurrent theme in the film. That it’s a need to imagine, and innovate and be a free thinker in order to devise and build not only this wonderful place called Tomorrowland but to fix the current maladies of our present day world.
Our two main characters of Casey Newton and Frank Walker are the embodiment of that notion of free thinking, but they are positive and negative forces also. Newton being the perpetual optimist, whilst Walker has been turned into a cynic. The chemistry between George Clooney and Britt Robertson makes their positive/negative tension the basis for the majority of the humour in the film. Yet it’s Raffey Cassidy’s turn as the enigmatic Athena, a guardian and guide for both Newton and Walker’s characters into the Tomorrowland realm, who is a real standout. Watch out for her super speed, strength and martial arts skills, because she’s definitely not your average 11 year old. Hugh Laurie doesn’t share as much screen time as Clooney but still manages to steal a couple of quick dry-wit one liners. And the wonderful comedy pairing of Kathryn Hahn and Keegan-Michael Key also show up as a pair of nostalgia and vintage collectibles hunters who aren’t quite what they seem.
Where the film stumbles though is in the delivery, it initially begins as a gentle nudge but soon turns into a much harder shove with Bird’s critique of all the negativity. The film touches on the notion of this idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy, that the reason why the world isn’t getting better is because it’s too easy to just accept it rather than stand up to the challenge of fixing it. This in itself is probably too grand a scheme for younger kids to grasp but for the rest of us it’s a little frightening at how realistic this notion is. But Bird seems to make it come across as a little too preachy, particularly in the latter half of the film where this sense of foreboding causes the film to lose its initial warmth and wonder as the stakes get raised. But we can rest assured this is a Disney film after all, so there’s bound to be a happy ending.
Tomorrowland seems to straddle this desire to want to be a fun adventure film but also deliver weighty and provocative themes for a kids’ movie. It was nice to see that it pushes these philosophical ideas and promotes them in a film targeted for a young adult audience. Particularly when so much of our mainstream media is fuelled by nihilism and dystopian futures. Though maybe Bird could’ve toned down the preachiness factor a little? It’s still a fun film to watch, but it’s probably not as idealistic as its Disney predecessors.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 130 minutes
Tomorrowland is screening in Australian cinemas from 28th May 2015 through Disney Pictures