Tomorrowland is one of the most buzzed about movies of the summer amongst film fans, given its cryptic association with Walt Disney’s history and his personal philosophy towards the scientific advancements in society. Director Brad Bird has taken much pride in creating such ambiguity around his film, leaving both fans of his work and casual movie-going audiences wondering what it could really be about. From its connections with the year of 1952 and literally sharing the name with the themed area in Disneyland, Tomorrowland seemed like the type of film that would deliver something very profound once it completely unravels itself. Bird should be applauded for creating a film that celebrates imagination and optimism. Unfortunately, the film goes about it in a way that audiences may feel cheated by once the credits roll. Tomorrowland is definitely an enjoyable summer blockbuster, but for a film helmed by a director like Bird and set up to have a huge reveal, it just isn’t enough.
The film opens with a flashback to the 1964 World’s Fair, and we follow a young, ambitious inventor named Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson), who comes to the fair to present his own invention. Bird does an incredible job capturing a world you feel nostalgic for and yet were never a part of. His direction and the phenomenal production design successfully visualize the 1960s and its hopefulness for social and technological progress. Without spoiling what happens to Frank, this opening is a beautiful peek into what the film’s core message is, as this aspiring kid grows up to be a bitter and cynical man (George Clooney). The opening then cuts to the present and the film’s main protagonist, Casey (Britt Robertson), an intelligent teen with a rebellious spirit and a curiosity for what the future has to offer. Her calling might just be answered when she discovers a mysterious “T” pin that transports her to a glossy, awe-inspiring utopia known as Tomorrowland. This pin’s effects don’t last for long, and Casey must find her way back to Tomorrowland with the help of Frank, who doesn’t explain his connections with the place to her right away. Things don’t much clearer for Casey once Frank tells her that the people of Tomorrowland have been looking for someone like her to help them.
There is a lot more going on in the first act that I haven’t gotten into, and it’s best that you don’t know about these details before seeing this movie. This is just about as much information as the advertisements have given, and it’s enough material to tease anyone. What exactly is Tomorrowland? Who lives there? Why is Frank involved in it? How did Casey get the pin? It’s rare today to see a big studio movie that can leave you this invested before its release. So, it’s upsetting to see that the film’s ultimate payoff leaves a lot more to be desired. Even getting to that payoff is a bit of a bumpy road, while still being quite entertaining. Surprisingly, Casey and Frank don’t meet until later into the second act, and it would have been much more effective if their dynamic was introduced earlier in the film. What prevents them from meeting sooner than later is a little girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy). She’s the heart of the film, the one that brings Casey and Frank together, and the holder of the many mysteries of Tomorrowland. While she is truly an intriguing character and Cassidy gives a very memorable performance, she plays an important part in a clunky first half of the movie. Although Bird shows his directing strengths throughout, he runs into some issues trying to establish the film’s ongoing conflict. Also, the film’s general tone is rather uneven, where it can go from modern blockbuster to campy 1960s sci-fi. Its sporadic sense of humor is not much of an advantage in this case, either.
Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a film being ‘weird,’ and Tomorrowland’s weirdness could have been more forgiven if the final act was more impactful. Probably the biggest disappointment about Tomorrowland is the lack of the actual Tomorrowland. It feels way too late once the film gets to its titular location, and it’s not because the whole movie needed to take place in it, but all of the story’s greatest secrets are revealed in the final act almost all at once. The film’s screenplay by Bird and the ‘infamous’ Damon Lindelof of Lost could have used some tinkering, although its central problems aren’t what you might think. Many of Tomorrowland’s harshest critics may blame the screenplay’s faults on Lindelof for leaving too many questions unanswered. Though, in my opinion, the film does fine in explaining its complexities, because, as it turns out, there aren’t really many to begin with. Where the film’s screenplay really falters in is its narrative structure and pacing. Tomorrowland sets up so many ideas to ponder upon, but it squanders them by stretching them thin. Eventually, when the film enters its final act, it tries to cut to the chase too quickly and it becomes disappointingly predictable.
It’s a shame that the screenplay isn’t better, as Bird’s well-intentioned themes and directing deserve more. Tomorrowland’s old-fashioned take on the possibilities of science and the future is praiseworthy and reassuring. I wouldn’t have minded if the film had even more of the sentimentality it had in its flashback intro. Its striking and colorful visuals played over Michael Giacchino’s score are what the film could have used more of. Bird wants to make the type of blockbuster that truly heightens your imagination, harkening back to the days of 80s summer movies with Spielberg-like wonder. There are plenty of moments in Tomorrowland that do have that touch, but there are also many moments that totally lose it. By no means did Bird make a bad film here, far from one. It’s just that Tomorrowland immediately puts itself on a high pedestal right from the start, and when it does that, it has to deliver. Some audiences may feel satisfied after watching this movie, but Brad Bird fans will likely leave wanting for more.