In his animated films “Iron Giant” and “The Incredibles,” Brad Bird has embraced science fiction’s more optimistic modes. These films express a beguiling wonder about the limitless possibilities of mankind — if mankind could only get from under its naysayers and betrayers.
In his new live-action sci-fi fantasy, “Tomorrowland,” he returns to these themes with abandon. In the contrast between two protagonists, one deeply disillusioned and the other with illusions still fully intact, Bird promotes a potential future not unlike the one glimpsed in the famed Disneyland theme park yet does so in contrast to the dystopian tendencies in much of science fiction.
So the movie emerges as an earnest plea for multi-cultural we-are-the-world sentiments versus the divisive cynicism and defeatism running rampant wherever you look.
Getting to this sermon, however, is a bumpy ride though dead-end detours, sloppy story construction and portentous dialogue that burns up far too much time in a very talky screenplay Bird wrote with Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen.
It’s a while before even the central conflict and locations come into focus. Imagine jumping back and forth between Kansas and Oz in “The Wizard of Oz” with several key characters out of sight for long stretches and you get the picture.
Disney Studios has thrown the weight of its kingdom into making and marketing this movie, not to mention George Clooney, so this gamble on a non-franchise, effects-driven, lovingly cast sci-fi tentpole in early summer may pay off for the Mouse House.
Let’s be clear: “Tomorrowland” belongs to Bird Land as much as Disneyland. It’s a land of pure imagination and pleasurably loony leaps in logic, space and time. Then as things grow darker and more ominous, Bird lets the sun shine through in a neat finale that underscores hope and clear thinking over negativity.
As Disney Studios continues to capitalize on its own intellectual properties and theme parks from “Pirates of the Caribbean” to “Saving Mr. Banks,” “Tomorrowland” springs from the Magic Kingdom Imagineers’ futurism not only of its theme park inaugurated in 1954 but the Disney-designed elements at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
At that Fair, Imagineers foresaw soaring buildings, sleek monorails and clean technology without a slum or pothole in sight. And this is also where Bird picks up his story as a grizzled and grumpy Frank Walters (Clooney) stares at you and declares in one of those breathtaking sentences that makes perfect sense the minute it’s uttered: “When I was a kid, the future was different.”
Flashback to his youthful self (a nicely cast Thomas Robinson) as he strides enthusiastically into that fairground carrying a homemade “jet pack,” not yet fully reliable. Nevertheless he is determined to enter it into competition.
A haughty scientist named Nix (Hugh Laurie) does exactly that — he turns young Frank down. Yet a remarkably self-assured and sophisticated young girl with a British accent, Athena (Raffey Cassidy), takes a shine to this boy possibly a year or so younger than her.
So she gives to young Frank a small pin emblazoned with a big “T.” This allows him entry into a real Tomorrowland whose mystery and purpose will only become clearer (but never truly clear) as the movie progresses.
Before you and Frank get too enamored to the place, the movie abruptly cuts to today and another young person brimming with hope for the future, teenager Casey Newton (Britt Robertson). Her dad (Tim McGraw) is a NASA scientist about to be unemployed for unexplained reasons. Yet she too acquires, under decidedly mysterious circumstances, a similar T pin.
When touched this pin thrusts her into extraordinary images of a vast wheat field and in the distance a gleaming city of the future. These hallucinations prove elusive though for she remains rooted in her Florida home and is left frustratingly unfulfilled by those haunting images.
The movie now gets diverted into unsatisfying episodes involving a suspicious sci-fi memorabilia store, its bizarre proprietors (Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key) and android goons who chase after Casey until Athena, looking not one day older than she was in 1964, comes to her rescue.
Athena also introduces her to Frank albeit a much different person than when last seen. He is now a hermit in a hidden-away house that nevertheless bristles with exotic gadgets and gear. After much fighting and chases again involving those boring androids, everyone ends up, bizarrely, in Paris.
It’s a long story.
Anyway once in Paris Frank shows Casey the private office of the Eiffel Tower’s designer along with Disneyland-like models of the four men — Gustave Eiffel, Jules Verne, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla — who created the utopian commune they dubbed Tomorrowland.
More magic gets Casey, Frank and Athena blasted off to this world only for the landing to be disappointing indeed. Nix — remember him? — runs the place, which looks more ghost town than Futurama. The outlook for it and for mankind in general is bleak. Only Casey, it seems, is equipped to “fix the world.”
(No clue what makes the young woman the only candidate other than she is an optimist to Frank’s determined pessimist.)
So the movie finally arrives at the crux of the matter. Yet the path to this final confrontation is strewn with too many peripheral characters and blind alleys. Once finally arrived in the promised land for the third act, the movie effectively preaches it ecological/humanistic sermon while intrigues and betrayals occur amid nifty FX-laden stunts.
Thus “Tomorrowland” resembles a much longer version of a “Twilight Zone” episode crossed perhaps with ‘50s-era sci-fi’er such as “Forbidden Planet.” The young actors do extremely well in playing credible wide-eyed youths, not such an easy task these days, while Clooney and Laurie balance things nicely out as aging cynics.
Scott Chambliss’ retro Modernist buildings and grounds (with an assist from the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, designed by Santiago Calatrava) make Tomorrowland a special place indeed, which cinematographer Claudio Miranda has neatly captured.
So the problem is not that the message is wrong or that “Tomorrowland” spends as little time in T-town as “Chinatown” spent in that section of Los Angeles. No, it’s that the haphazard storytelling and static character dynamics, spread out over 130 minutes, work against that message.
What you expect from a movie called “Tomorrowland” is an adventure. But a lot of things happening all at once, and in puzzling ways, does not in itself comprise an adventure.
You want to get back to that little boy who glimpsed a future that was “different” than what exists today. In this movie that remains maddeningly out of reach.
Opens: May 22, 2015 (Walt Disney Studios)
Production company: A113 Productions
Cast: George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Robinson, Pierce Gagnon, Chris Bauer
Director: Brad Bird
Screenwriters: Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird
Story by: Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird, Jeff Jensen
Producers: Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird, Jeffrey Chernov
Executive producers: John Walker, Bernard Bellew, Jeff Jensen, Brigham Taylor
Director of photography: Claudio Miranda
Production designer: Scott Chambliss
Music: Michael Giacchino
Costume designer: Jeffrey Kurland
Editors: Walter Murch, Craig Wood
PG rating, 130 minutes