With so many popular films favouring darkness and cynicism, it’s a brave decision for any Hollywood studio to put their powers behind a film bubbling with optimism and hope. Then again, if any studio was to do so, it would be Walt Disney Studios. Their founder had a well-known passion for invention and innovation, and crafted a utopian vision of the future in his films and in his design of Disneyland. Central to this vision was Tomorrowland, still the most popular of the Disneyland parks, and the inspiration for the fantastical collaboration between director Brad Bird and writer Damon Lindelof. Shrouded in secrecy, ‘Tomorrowland’ teased an old-school sci-fi adventure full of thrills and excitement, but in the cynical cultural and social landscape, is there actually a place for it?
Budding teen genius Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) has her world thrown upside down when she finds a mysterious brooch pin in her belongings. When she touches it, she is given a glimpse at a remarkable futuristic city, one where all her dreams and ambitions might come true. Desperate to get back there, she becomes embroiled with a strange little girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who leads Casey on a wild chase to find the one man that can get them back to Tomorrowland – a reclusive inventor named Frank Walker (George Clooney) who holds a terrible secret.
In his previous films, Bird demonstrated a keen eye for action and fantasy, and ‘Tomorrowland’ is further proof of what an exciting director he is. From a purely technical standpoint, the film is a wondrous achievement, full of life and colour. It’s a giddy and energetic film, completely at ease with its sunny optimism and embracing the tropes that come with this kind of family fantasy adventure. We’re only a few steps away from the family classics of the 90s, with witty action sequences executed with a spring in their step. With so many blockbusters favouring a grittier texture, it’s surprising what a relief the optimism of ‘Tomorrowland’ is, especially in its superb first two acts. The ideas in the film may be tried and true, but that seems to be the point, the film revelling in something more pastoral and idealistic whilst still delivering a good-hearted moral at the end. It’s a film steeped so much in the past, even down the 50s-inspired chrome futurism of the titular city itself, even down to its decision to buck the trend and not be shown in 3D. It’s also a Disney film through and through, and in the best possible way. Even down to its zippy rhythms and clear characterisations, it feels like something that would have come out of the 50s era of classic Disney live action adventures.
Unfortunately, even with the aplomb of Bird’s direction and the superb work from his technical team, the screenplay is where the film begins to falter. What begins as a strong robust narrative starts to spiral aimlessly as it reaches its climax, far too sedentary for a film that opens with such a bang. Lindelof has never been great with endings, but what makes it a little more frustrating with ‘Tomorrowland’ is the strength of its opening and the power of its central conceit. There’s a lot of promise in this film, and further development of the screenplay could have really taken the film to the next level.
It’s a giddy and energetic film, completely at ease with its sunny optimism and embracing the tropes that come with this kind of family fantasy adventure.
Thankfully the cast are completely complicit with the tone and energy of the film, and everyone excels. Robertson was one of the only promising things about the dreadful TV series ‘Under the Dome’, and here she spreads her wings and shows what an exciting talent she is. She bounces across the screen with endless energy and tremendous charm. George Clooney looks like he’s having a ball as cantankerous Frank, and it’s nice to see a film that favours his acting talent and impeccable comic timing over his good looks. Raffey Cassidy is also a delight as Athena. More than anyone, she looks like she’s stepped out of a classic Disney film with her big smile and a face full of freckles, and she proves herself a compelling screen presence against her older co-stars. Hugh Laurie also pops up here and there, but he suffers the most from the more exposition-heavy parts of the screenplay and the flaws in the final act.
I really wanted to love ‘Tomorrowland’ more than I ultimately did, realising quickly that I was very much in its corner cheering it on. It took me back to being a kid again, caught up in high adventure with exciting characters in fantastical places. Director Brad Bird does a cracking job at giving the film pop and snap, but it never quite jumps the hurdle of its faltering final act, and the end result feels underdeveloped and strangely unsatisfying. That said, ‘Tomorrowland’ matters where it needs to – it’s an enormously fun film, and doesn’t apologise for it in the slightest. Some might scoff at its optimism, calling it idealistic or naïve, but amidst all the loud and pompous superhero crap we’ll be force-fed till the middle of this century, a genuinely original and hopeful idea is something worth celebrating. So if this all sounds like a ride you’d happily jump aboard, go for it. You’ll probably have a blast along the way.