Brad Bird’s “Tomorrowland” is a great-looking, old-fashioned, at times soaring adventure ultimately brought down by a needlessly convoluted plot, some surprisingly casual violence and heavy-handed lectures about how we’re our own worst enemy and we’re going to destroy the planet if we don’t get it together.
Gee, where have we heard that before? I know: in a million other movies.
This is the first major disappointment of the summer movie season. (Box office aside, I wasn’t really expecting “Pitch Perfect 2” to be the “Godfather 2” of a cappella musicals.) Given Bird’s track record as the writer-director of the beautifully crafted animated gems “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille” and the director of the genuinely thrilling “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” I was hoping “Tomorrowland” would be that rare film appealing to multiple generations — but it feels too schmaltzy and preachy for the grown-ups, and a little rough and meandering for the kids to embrace.
We open with a confusing sequence in which the crusty Frank Walker (George Clooney) is grousing, “When I was a kid, the future was different,” as he fends off the constant interruptions from a girl who’s offscreen. Flashback to the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where young Frank (Thomas Robinson) is bursting with enthusiasm as he lugs his garage-made jet pack to an inventor’s competition with a first prize of 50 bucks. The jet pack isn’t quite there yet, but Frank’s won’t-quit attitude attracts the attention of a mysterious lass named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who shows Frank the doorway to a magical and yet very real world known as Tomorrowland.
(First problem with “Tomorrowland”: The kid playing young Frank is not a good actor. When he’s going up against green-screen special effects or trying to convey fear or love at first sight, it’s just not there. Contrast that with young Raffey Cassidy as Athena, who’s just a pure natural.)
We only get a glimpse of Tomorrowland through young Frank’s experiences, because the story abruptly swings forward nearly a half-century later. After that opening monologue, George Clooney disappears from the movie for about an hour, and the focus shifts to a young woman named Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), the daughter of a NASA engineer (Tim McGraw) who’s about to lose his job because they’re tearing down the nearby launch site. When Casey touches a small pin with a “T” emblazoned on it, she is transported to a futuristic world where the skies are a clear blue, everyone dresses like everyone dresses in movies set in the future, and people, cars and trains fly through the air.
Thanks to pristine work from production designer Scott Chambliss and cinematographer Claudio Miranda, the Tomorrowland world has a very cool, retro-future look, and we’re eager to learn more about this parallel universe. Is it really the future of Earth, or another dimension taking place in real time? Beyond the flying and the weird, synchronized diving ballets, which are never explained, in what other ways is the future an improvement?
But that’s the thing. Most of “Tomorrowland” takes place not in Tomorrowland, but back on Earth in the present day, as Casey, Athena and (eventually) the adult Frank team up to save the world while trying to stay one step ahead of a posse of androids hell-bent on taking them down. (A scene in which a robot bad guy casually kills a number of small-town cops seems a bit harsh for a film of this nature.)
For much of the story, we’re not sure who the villains are (it’s never really fully explained), what went wrong with Tomorrowland and exactly why Casey has been tagged as humanity’s best hope. Clooney, Robertson and Cassidy are quite good together, even though there’s a weird subtext to the Frank/Athena relationship that borders on the creepy — but it takes an awfully long time to get back to Tomorrowland.
Along the way, there’s a touch of “Men in Black,” a little bit of “The Wizard of Oz,” nods to cultural icons ranging from Nikola Tesla to R2-D2 to Chuck Yeager, numerous Disney in-jokes — and Hugh Laurie as the chief villain, Governor Nix, who delivers the obligatory lecture about the self-destructive nature of humans that’s actually pretty hilarious. (As Nix points out, we’re a planet with twin epidemics of starvation and obesity. How does THAT happen?)
It’s a bumpy, uneven ride, but “Tomorrowland” had just enough charm and excitement and visual treats where I was close to recommending it — until a final series of scenes that reminded me of certain particularly schmaltzy TV spots, and I’ll just leave it at that. Instead of dialing up the fun, the filmmakers piled on with the lecture. In the last few minutes of this movie I was reminded of my days as a student, when the semester was over and it was the last day of school, and the teacher was still lecturing us as the final bell rang.
Enough. We get it. We need to do better. Now can we get back to the flying cars?
Disneypresents a film directed by Brad Bird and written by Bird and Damon Lindelof. Running time: 130minutes. Rated PG (for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language). Opens Friday at local theaters.