Walt Disney himself is never seen or mentioned in TOMORROWLAND, but it’s a fantasy adventure based on his belief in the future as a place of infinite promise and wonder and shit. It’s a story about kids finding a secret hidden city founded by great visionaries of the past (Edison, Verne [not me, the other one], Tesla, the guy that invented the Etch-a-sketch I think) as a hope for a better world. It’s all glorious curvy buildings, flying monorails, friendly robots and floating swimming pools.
One kid named Frank (Thomas Robinson as the kid version of George Clooney) goes there to try out his home-made jetpack. Another named Casey (Britt Robertson, SCREAM 4) is intrigued by their space program. The crew she sees going on a spaceship are young enough to be dropped off by their parents. At least half of them are women and I think only one white kid. The movie’s dedication to diversity and internationalism seems very of-the-moment, but it also relates to one of Tomorrowland’s secret entrances: inside the original 1964 World’s Fair version of It’s a Small World. Wait a minute, It’s a Small World is in Fantasyland, not Tomorrowland. Get your fuckin geography straight, Hollywood.
There are lots of little nods and references to Disneyland, where “Tomorrowland” is the name for the section that contains Star Tours, a Buzz Lightyear ride, a terrible thing they have finally decided to destroy called Innoventions, and the historic former site of Captain EO. For one thing, jetpacks have long been associated with Disneyland:
And the pins that Tomorrowland recruits in the movie use to travel through dimensions are styled after the type of collectible pins sold and traded in the park. You may notice the distinctive architecture of the Space Mountain building in an animated prologue, a Tomorrow-ized Walt Disney Pictures logo, and the metropolis itself. And Athena (Raffey Cassidy, DARK SHADOWS), a freckle-faced British tike who occasionally busts out the laser guns and super-human fighting skills, says she’s not a robot but an Audio-Animatronic. I wonder if she knows Abe Lincoln? There are also nods to director/co-writer Brad Bird’s other movies, like a whole shelf of IRON GIANT toys and a Mr. Incredible doll that show up in a collectible shop (no GHOST PROTOCOL as far as I noticed).
But the kind of invention and sweetness that we love about Disney, Pixar and Bird, while sometimes present, sort of take a backseat to a preachiness about the world needing more “dreamers” and less dystopias. It’s a dire warning about dire warnings. I’m always railing against the cynical dismissal of this type of positivity, so obviously I don’t disagree with it, but I feel like such a happy message oughta be more fun than this. They got the medicine but they forgot the spoonful of sugar.
Like in INTERSTELLAR there’s a fear of the space program being shut down. Tim McGraw plays Casey’s dad and it’s good casting because in most movies he’d be out of a job because the factory’s closing. Here it’s because the space platform is being dismantled and he’s a NASA engineer. Like the dad in AMERICAN SNIPER he has an allegory he tells her about wolves, but his is inspiring instead of scary and she tells it to him to cheer him up.
The main moral is that we should be more optimistic and work on ways to solve the problems we face in the future rather than dwell on nihilistic notions of inevitable doom. It’s a good message but it seems a little obnoxious in a montage where her teachers talking about global warming, among other things, are portrayed as total buffoons. She acts like everybody else is crazy for listening to this and no one will call on her when she raises her hand to say “I get it, it’s bad. So how do we fix it?”
Sure, good attitude, except one reason we haven’t fixed it is because the powerful people who benefit financially from making a mess have done a good job of pretending the problem doesn’t exist. They’ve made a political division where one side feels like they’re supposed to be the anti-science side, like it’s sacreligious to benefit from the knowledge that mankind has developed. And that’s part of why we haven’t followed through on the things scientists have said we need to do to slow down global warming, or put enough funding into things like stem cell research or your precious space program. So don’t be so quick to mock educators, young lady. Education is one of the steps in “fixing it.” (And wait, education has been defunded too.)
Anyway George Clooney is in this, he’s a disgruntled former Tomorrowlandian turned pessimistic shut-in who lives alone with his cool doomsday clock and his hologram guard dog. And he reluctantly joins Casey in a battle with weird robotic impostor people and lasers and crazy inventions and Hugh Laurie is Mayor Nix who stopped Tomorrowland from sharing their gifts with the world and he’s a jerk and at the end he makes a big speech where I had to admit he was correct but I forget what it was about. They have some conflicts and disagreements or whatever. At some point the late Darren Shahlavi appears as “Tough Guard,” so look for that. I didn’t spot him.
Then there’s a pretty cool hopeful ending where the dream of dreaming dreaminess is reborn in a group of promising individuals of all nationalities, ages and disciplines from clean energy innovators to car manufacturers to ballet dancers and painters and I heard originally they planned to have me in there as the movie critic of the future but they thought it would be confusing to have two Verns so ultimately after going back and forth and test screening both cuts they decided to go with Jules Verne. Thanks alot, asshole. Not only would I have inspired generations of children I woulda got lifetime 50% off on churros.
The structure of the movie is weird, sometimes in a playful way. It jumps around more than you expect and has Frank and Casey narrating the story in first person and arguing with each other. It reminded me of how Bird’s RATATOUILLE told the story, but here the jokiness is more awkard and some of the information is redundant after the pre-logo animated part that already explained the premise.
Bird is never gonna phone it in, so there are fun gimmicks and neat little parts and what not. I like how by the time Casey gets there there are a bunch of jetpacks much more advanced than the one Frank brought there, and now they include sort of an airbag suit that inflates around you before you crash. Also the whole part where Frank uses various inventions in his house to escape was cool. And the part where Athena ran fast after the car like a T-1000.
And hey, wait – did they save the world by blowing up Epcot? I think they did. Yeah, I never been to Disney World but I have heard that Epcot is boring.
It’s not a bad viewing experience, but when it was over I felt like there wasn’t a movie’s worth of fun and thrills in there, and after thinking about it for a day I decided it’s because the Tomorrowland of the movie isn’t that fun or thrilling of a place. It’s better than Innoventions, sure, but it’s definitely no Star Tours.
I mean yeah, cool, there’s jetpacks, and flying things to look at for a minute. Then what? When she goes there the first time her pin has a timer on it that runs out right before she gets to go to space and she’s pissed. That makes sense for her but for the rest of us, do we really need much more time there than just a few minutes to walk around? I mean, what would we do there? Obviously I would go on Space Mountain, which nobody in the movie seems interested in, but that’s not reason enough to live there.
Do these people actually live there, or is it just their job that they go to? What do they do? They just sit around and invent stuff? And during a dry spell they just talk about their love of optimism? I guess I’m not really sure I get it. Not being a math and science guy I figure I would spend most of my time feeling stupid and left out of conversations. Robertson as Casey does seem believably smart, and we see some evidence of what a genius she is, but actually I’m not sure what she’s gonna do there either. She gets to figure out important things to save the day but, I don’t know, for a movie hero it doesn’t seem like she does that much.
I do think this movie would be much better for a kid. If I was a kid I’m sure all that hope stuff would seem deep instead of corny. It might be kind of like the way EXPLORERS made kids fantasize about building their own space ship out of junk, or the kid in GOONIES made them want to make “inventions” (which at that age means grappling hooks or contraptions that can be shot at other people’s balls). A kind of non-specific daydream of fun innovation.
Or maybe it would just make kids wish they had a jetpack. I guess screwing around on jetpacks is the main thing the magical world of Tomorrowland has to offer.
The parallels to INTERSTELLAR go deeper than what I said before. It’s similar in that a main character is a girl with a brilliant scientific mind and an eagerness to solve the problems of the future who is very close with her single father (an engineer who’s out of work because of society deprioritizing aeronautics) and who doesn’t fit in because of her love of science, which is not really supported by her school.
But also this really reminded me of TRON: LEGACY in some weird ways. Both of them have a young hero who puts on dark clothes and rides a motorcycle to sneak around at night and sabotage stuff at their dad’s workplace. And then they accidentally discover a weird technology that transports them to a secret fantastical world that turns out to be run by an unfriendly misguided person. And the scene where she checks out Tomorrowland and sees people diving through different levels of floating pools really reminded me of the scene where he goes to Tronland and sees people playing sports on different levels of floating whatever they were. And both have a girl who is not human who is from the secret world and shows the hero the ropes and can fight. And some promising person from the past who is now old and exiled. And probly other similarities. And remember, Disney brought in Brad Bird and Michael Arndt to write reshoots for TRON LEGACY. Hmmm.
But you know what? There’s no light cycle chase. Just a couple short jetpack scenes. Needs a light cycle chase.
The other connection is that TOMORROWLAND’s decent but not spectacular money-making may be what made the studio decide to cancel plans for a TRON 3. Which is too bad, not only because I would’ve enjoyed another one of those stupid movies but because it seems likely to put a cap on a period of creative risk-taking for the studio. This particular one didn’t pay off too well, but it’s cool that they took a talented director and let him do a weird, obviously very personal movie. I guess that’s sort of what they did with PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN too, and that worked out for them, but they can only have so many swing-and-a-misses on these other movies before they run out of pirate booty.
I actually tend to be a fan of modern Disney live action flops. Here they are ranked in order of my preference:
And I believe #1 there is the most hated and most money-losing of the bunch. With that in mind, working against me liking TOMORROWLAND was the fact that it was the #1 movie of Memorial Day weekend. Working for it: it was the lowest grossing #1 Memorial Day weekend movie in 20 years!
But I should’ve known since it was doing okay, not an out-and-out failure, I was gonna be mixed on it. Oh well. Have hope, people. I have seen the future and in the future there are better movies than TOMORROWLAND.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.