Hope can be a hard sell these days. But optimism and rejection of cynicism are the main menu items in Tomorrowland, as prototypically “Walt Disney” a movie as you’d ever expect to see in 2015. It’s so retro Disney, in fact, that it could have been made in 1965. The movie’s inspiration is, of course, the Disneyland attraction Tomorrowland, the last built but most underfunded of the theme park’s distinct areas in 1955, meant to deliver a sunshiny, gleaming vision of an endlessly imaginative future Utopia bristling with dazzle, wonder, and American can-do spirit. Similarly, the new movie from director Brad Bird (maker of the certifiably great The Iron Giant, Ratatouille and The Incredibles) and screenwriter Damon Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus) is pitched at the world’s dreamers, visionaries, and cockeyed optimist.
Personifiying that theme is smart, snarky young heroine Casey (Britt Robertson, styled to resemble Jennifer Lawrence, only without the blazing charisma) who challenges her teachers when they spout cynical predictions of global annihilation, is a wiz at fixing mechanical things, and who sneaks out of the home of her dad (Tim McGraw) who’s been laid off from NASA so that she can dismantle the explosive devices that will trigger the imminent destruction of Cape Canaveral, that ‘60s era symbol of outsized ambition and imagination. Tapped for being “special” by a preternaturally poised little British girl (Raffey Cassidy, excellent and a dead ringer for the young Veronica Cartwright), Casey is given a special “T” medallion which, when clutched, zooms her to an Oz-ish nirvana of vision, brotherhood, and innovation. Cue the jetpacks, bottomless horizontally tiered swimming pools, waving wheat fields, flying transport trains, and helpful robots — beautiful, delightful stuff as one would expect from Bird.
But Casey’s way back to Tomorrowland is littered with obstacles so she is forced to join forces with Frank (George Clooney), a bristly, cynical bachelor burnout who warns that “the future is scary,” and who was similarly picked out and given a “T” pin of his own back in 1964 at the New York World’s Fair when he was a boundlessly upbeat child inventor. Now, living in hermit-like obscurity and forever banished from Tomorrowland for a transgression the movie never bothers to quite make clear, Frank must ignite some of his old spirit to help Casey save mankind from its own smug, lazy apathy and self-fulfilling sense of doom.
After way too much talk, too many shockingly underdeveloped themes and ideas, and way too many detours (such as a calamitous nostalgia store sequence that even Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn can’t salvage), our heroes dimension-hop to Tomorrowland only to meet a weak villain (Hugh Laurie), destructive bots, and a dull, chintzy and rushed vision of the future. Even with the movie’s on-the-nose speechifying about positivity, rejecting neg-heads, and expecting more of ourselves, clearly Bird and Lindelof’s hearts and politics are in the right place. But their characters are zilch and the film’s lack of logic from scene to scene keeps us jamming the “pause” button when we’re aching for the movie to soar, whack us upside the head with brilliance and emotion, and get us all on that build-a-better-tomorrow bandwagon. As a recruitment poster for dreamers and reformers, Tomorrowland falls short. As a movie event, it’s the most dispiriting letdown of the season so far. **½