There’s something to admire in a film like Tomorrowland that gives away nothing in the trailers or any in other form of publicity, particularly if it still piques an interest and succeeds in you wanting to see it. Ordinarily, from an industry point of view, that’s impressive. Seriously, who has seen a clip and come away thinking they know what it’s all about? At a time when trailers give away too much, the Disney marketers would seem to have done things right; created a must-see event while revealing little to nothing at all. Then you see the film and understand why.
Tomorrowland, with all its imagination, dazzling imagery and the occasional edge-of-your-seat excitement, is puzzling storytelling at best. At worst, you’ll leave without a clue. Little wonder there was nothing revealed in the marketing build-up; how do you sell a story like this?
The problem begins immediately. The film opens with its two principle leads bickering over how to tell the tale. George Clooney is Frank Walker, a brilliant inventor who has seen the future and has a story to tell, except that each time he starts to tell it he’s interrupted by Britt Robertson as Casey Newton, a brilliant teenage scientist who has also seen the future. Casey feels that Frank isn’t telling it right and continually prompts the older guy on what he should include. Exasperated – and we already know how he feels – Frank gives the girl that then-you-do-it look. It’s cute in the way that Peter Falk tried to tell his interrupting grandson the story of The Princess Bride, but it’s not effective; it’s annoying.
What follows are two adventures. The first is about Frank as a boy (played nicely by twelve year-old Thomas Robinson) who visits the 1964 New York World’s Fair. As he enters the grounds, that famous, repetitive sing-a-long from Disney’s Carousel of Progress, the one about having a bright new tomorrow, plays. Young Frank is there to reveal his invention to judges. It’s a jet pack that straps over the shoulders and should send you shooting sky high, something like Disney’s The Rocketeer, only it’s not quite right. Instead of upwards and onwards, it sends young Frank hurtling head-first through lakes, fields and crashing through wooden fences at the speed of lightning. The same scene in The Rocketeer was funny, exciting and left you breathless. In Tomorrowland, it would have killed the kid. But, of course, it doesn’t, and young Frank picks himself up, and brushes away the grass. His invention is dismissed by judge Hugh Laurie, but something else happens; with the help of a special World’s Fair commemorative pin handed to him by a mysterious young girl, Athena (Raffey Cassidy), Frank is whisked off to the city of Tomorrowland. “Who are you?” the boy asks. “I’m the future, Frank Walker,” Athena replies, which still tells us nothing.
The second adventure is a present-day tale of the perpetually curious teenager Casey who questions everything. Even as a child she showed more than an interest in traveling to the stars. “What if there’s nothing up there?” her NASA engineer father (country singer Tim McGraw) asks. The girl’s answer is priceless. “What if there’s everything?” Like the young Frank, Casey also gets a glimpse into the future world of Tomorrowland with the help of that commemorative pin left to her by the mysterious young Athena. And still we have no clue what’s going on.
Those familiar with the Tomorrowland of the Disney parks should recall its theme, purpose and dedication from Walt Disney himself; a place where we can step into the future and glance at things to come that offer new frontiers in science and adventure with an overall view to eventually making mankind a peaceful and unified world in which to live. There are some great rides, too. The overall theme to the film is basically the same, though in order to create thrills and conflict on such an ambiguous platform, writers Damen Lindelof and Brad Bird, who also directed, have taken the theme and presented an adventure full of great looking set pieces, some thrills and spills, lots of irritating bickering between all characters, and a plot that’s ultimately hard to fully grasp.
The conflict in the earthbound Blast From The Past sci-fi memorabilia store is fun where enemy robot shopkeepers Kathryn Hahn (complete with Princess Leia hair buns) and Keegan-Michael Key attempt to zap Casey. The eye-catching walls and shelves are decorated with all kinds of priceless collectables from famous films, including TV’s Lost in Space, The Iron Giant and, not surprisingly, heavy – really heavy – on the new Disney franchise, Star Wars.
There’s also a sequence that jumps our two leads to Paris where we discover the true reason behind the existence of the Eiffel Tower. “We’re in Paris?” the young Casey asks. “Will you stop being so amazed?” Clooney’s Frank demands. Why the story didn’t use an American landmark for the same event – say, the Statue of Liberty; after all, it’s still French – is, at first curious. The characters just suddenly appear overseas without build up or warning; they’re simply there. Then it hits you. Of course. Liberty Island doesn’t have a Disney theme park. Paris does.
More disturbing than the endless references to the Disney empire is the scene where an unsuspecting truck driver accidentally runs over a robot thinking that he’s actually just killed a child. While the poor guy is frightened to death, fretting over what he thinks he’s just done, Casey jumps into his vehicle and speeds off. She actually steals the truck, never to return it at some later time or comment on the crime she just committed. Whether the moment was supposed to be funny is difficult to say. Considering the horror that guy must have felt, not to mention the frustration of watching his stolen pickup disappear leaving him stranded in the middle of nowhere, the way the scene plays out is just wrong.
By its fade out, Tomorrowland is ultimately a lengthy ad looking to inspire future generations to step forward and become Disney Imagineers with an eye to fulfilling Uncle Walt’s idealistic vision of new frontiers for the good of our future. The ideas are noble, it’s the murky delivery that spoils it.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 107 Minutes Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)