In his Pixar triumphs “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” writer-director Brad Bird proved himself not just a wizardly storyteller but also an ardent champion of excellence — of intelligence, creativity and nonconformity — in every arena of human (and rodent) accomplishment. All the more disappointing, then, that the forces of mediocrity have largely prevailed over “Tomorrowland,” a kid-skewing adventure saga that, for all its initial narrative intrigue and visual splendor, winds up feeling like a hollow, hucksterish Trojan horse of a movie — the shiny product of some smiling yet sinister dimension where save-the-world impulses and Disney mass-branding strategies collide. A sort of “Interstellar Jr.” in which the fate of humanity hinges on our ability to nurture young hearts and minds, the picture runs heavier on canned inspirationalism than on actual inspiration, which won’t necessarily keep it from drawing a hefty summer audience with its family-friendly elements, topnotch production values, Imax rollout, endless tie-in potential and a top-billed George Clooney.
There’s something to be said, of course, for a big-budget studio entertainment sly enough to retain a proper sense of mystery over its story and concept; much of the early buzz around “Tomorrowland” has swirled around the question of what it’s about — and exactly how much it has to do with its namesake neighborhood at Disneyland. With one mercifully brief, tongue-in-cheek exception, scribes Bird and Damon Lindelof (who together conceived the story with Jeff Jensen) avoid exploiting such theme-park attractions as Space Mountain, Star Tours and the dearly departed PeopleMover; if anything, their vision of Tomorrowland draws more heavily on Epcot Center, the ultimate representation of Walt Disney’s guiding belief in science and technology as a force for good in the world.
Few filmmakers would seem as ideally suited to honor that utopian ideal as Bird, who previously tapped into the enterprising, anything-is-possible ethos of 1950s-’60s America in movies like “The Incredibles,” with its snazzy, retro-futuristic aesthetics, and “The Iron Giant,” with its sweet, resonant treatment of Cold War anxieties. And there are setpieces in “Tomorrowland” — a famous international landmark that suddenly bursts open like a Faberge egg, or an ordinary-looking house that turns out to have so many gizmos, pulleys, booby traps and escape pods it might have been designed by Wallace and Gromit — which duly explode with a welcome sense of invention and limitless possibility (most of it springing from Scott Chambliss’ wondrous production design). But these moments are relatively few and far between — separated across long stretches of clunky storytelling, overbearing action and tiresome character interplay, and undermined by a narrative that never delivers the surge of escapist excitement seemingly promised at the outset.
Striking a worrisome note early on is an overly cutesy framing device that introduces two narrators who can’t stop arguing over how to tell their respective stories. The first of these is Frank Walker (Clooney), a curmudgeonly scientist who recounts how, as a young boy (played by Thomas Robinson), he attended the 1964 New York World’s Fair with his first big invention, a jet pack that (sort of) gives its wearer the power of flight. Dismissed by a supercilious judge (Hugh Laurie), Frank manages to attract the interest of a sly, watchful young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who hands him a small lapel pin marked with the letter “T.” One bumpy elevator ride later, Frank finds himself deposited in Tomorrowland, a city of towering robots and sleek, ivory-toned buildings, where one’s imagination can presumably run wild.
But before we can learn why Frank was brought to Tomorrowland and what he accomplished there, the film abruptly shifts to the present day. Our second narrator, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), is an extremely bright young woman in her 20s who lives with her father (Tim McGraw) and her little brother (Pierce Gagnon) in the shadow of the NASA station in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Like Frank before her, Casey boasts such keen intelligence and scientific acumen that she, too, receives a mysterious “T” pin; whenever (and only whenever) she touches it, she’s suddenly whisked off to Tomorrowland, necessitating several seamless, rapid-fire shifts in scenery. It’s the film’s niftiest visual trick, as well as a prelude to the one setpiece here that feels honestly transporting: an extended tracking shot in which we follow Casey on a monorail ride through the city, reveling in every otherworldly detail. (The context-free synchronized diving routine is a particular treat.)
But Casey’s trip is short-lived. After about two minutes of enraptured sight-seeing, she’s unceremoniously returned home, leaving her desperate to find her way back. By this point the viewer is likely to understand all too well how she feels, as “Tomorrowland” increasingly suggests a version of “The Wizard of Oz” that, despite numerous attempts at liftoff, never quite manages makes it over the rainbow. Indeed, Casey herself comes to resemble a sort of reverse Dorothy Gale figure — one eager to leave her humdrum existence, not return to it — as she hits the road and tries to find out who gave her the now-defunct pin. It’s not long before she finds her answer in the form of the mysteriously ageless Athena, who, with typically well-meaning vagueness, warns our heroine that she is in grave danger.
What little sense of wonder remains at this point is decisively zapped away when “Tomorrowland” suddenly morphs into a paranoid thriller/road movie, where danger lurks noisily behind every bend, as signaled by the busy workings of Michael Giacchino’s score. Athena persuades Casey to pay a visit to the cranky, hermitlike Frank, whom the android leaders of Tomorrowland banished years ago for making a startling discovery about the world’s impending doom. It’s here that the “Interstellar” connection kicks in, complete with (surrogate) father-daughter bond, as Casey’s inherent optimism becomes the necessary counterweight to Frank’s pessimism in the battle to save mankind. It’s here, too, that the film reveals its intent as a humanitarian/ecological call to arms, delivering an attack on widespread cynicism and apathy.
These are weighty, provocative, worthwhile themes to implant in a PG-rated family film, but the glaring failure of “Tomorrowland” is that its central premise — children are the future — is almost completely negated by the preachiness of the execution and the clumsiness of the storytelling. This is not, frankly, a movie that evinces much faith in the cognitive and imaginative powers of young people. Its attitude toward the tykes in the audience can be more or less summed up by the aggressively cheeky interplay between Clooney and Robertson, and by the blunt, often poorly motivated chase/action sequences (none of which rise to the level of Bird’s previous live-action feature, “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol”).
There is, perhaps, something almost perversely admirable about a movie called “Tomorrowland” that spends so little time in Tomorrowland, effectively treating that storied kingdom less as an actual place than as a state of mind. Still, it’s hard not to feel cheated, or to wonder if it was Lindelof, still best known for his work as a showrunner on “Lost,” who effectively turned this movie into such an evasive and unsatisfying game of narrative keepaway — one whose final revelations are dispensed in haste, and with a frustrating lack of rigor.
Indeed, for all its insistence on the rational, the picture at times gives off a bizarre, faux-spiritual vibe — not least in the recurring shots of the golden wheat fields outside Tomorrowland, which look so vast and ripe, they might have been filmed by Terrence Malick. (Claudio Miranda is credited with the cinematography, which looks particularly lustrous in Imax projection.) These images figure prominently in the film’s jaw-droppingly misguided final scene, a calculated bid for we-are-the-world sentimentality that plays out with the mildly unsettling overtones and forced multiculturalism of a cult recruitment video. Is this Tomorrowland or Heaven’s Gate?
Robertson, who bears an apt resemblance to Brit Marling, is thoroughly winning in her first major starring role, even if we must take Casey’s much-vaunted brainpower on confidence (a montage of her raising her hand repeatedly in class is the script’s convenient way of signaling “She’s smart!” without actually giving her anything smart to do or say). And the surprise of the picture may well be the young English actress Cassidy, giving a small wonder of a performance that balances humor and poignancy in a deliberately narrow range. Comedy fans will smile — briefly, anyway — at the sight of Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn as a pair of geek enthusiasts who run a Houston shop crammed with classic sci-fi movie memorabilia (cue obligatory nod to the recently Disney-acquired “Star Wars” franchise).
Clooney seems to have been cast as much for his liberal credentials as for his star power, and it’s a choice that can’t help but leave a somewhat smug aftertaste; he’s almost too fitting a spokesman for a movie that urges humanity to end all wars, take responsibility for the environment, and foster a greater, more alert engagement with the world around us. All worthy and admirable objectives, to be sure, but they can’t help but feel like platitudes in the absence of an adventure that compels and sustains dramatic interest on its own terms. Even when delivered with the best intentions, a lecture is a wretched substitute for wonder.