PLOT: Teenaged Casey receives a mysterious pin that allows her to see an alternate, futuristic world full of wondrous possibility. She must join forces with a curmudgeonly inventor and a unique little girl in order to find this place for real.
REVIEW: TOMORROWLAND is a strange and unfortunate misfire, a movie ostensibly aimed at children but containing little in the way of genuine adventure. If it seems initially like it'll bring all the joy of the Disneyland experience to the big screen, the movie ends up feeling more like waiting in line for two hours to get to five minutes of fun. This is a startling turn of events, especially considering it comes from director Brad Bird, who if you ask me previously hadn't made a bad movie, and also considering the potential such an ambitious idea holds. Add to that the years of secrecy surrounding the project - What was it really about? What amazing sights might it contain?! - that seem to be all for naught in hindsight. Truth of the matter is, TOMORROWLAND doesn't contain much of anything that could be considered awe-inspiring, and its sense of whimsy feels calculated and forced. What a bummer.
The movie's first 20 minutes or so offer promise: After a brief prologue in which George Clooney's Frank and Britt Robertson's Casey argue over how to record a video message (for whom, we don't know), the movie takes us to the 1964 New York World's Fair, where the Frank character as a youngster (Thomas Robinson) attempts to get his invention - a jetpack - approved by a haughty judge (Hugh Laurie). Failing to achieve his goal, Frank meets a curious young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who provides the boy with a pin and beckons him to follow her and some others aboard the "It's a Small World" ride. Frank soon discovers that the ride is no ordinary one if you're wearing that special pin, and he's quickly whisked off to the titular Tomorrowland, where he gets a glimpse of an amazing alternate dimension where complicated robots, flying monorails and other eye-popping, futuristic gadgets exist.
Very cool. So it's a shame, then, that the movie needs to stop cold what was a fairly enjoyable opening and abruptly shift gears to focus on Robertson's character Casey, an inventive tomboy with a yearning to help repair the increasingly damaged state of the world - starting with its space program. Dad (Tim McGraw, actually pretty good) works for NASA, but he's soon to be out of a job, and while Casey is pretty good at delaying the inevitable (she dismantles the cranes that are themselves dismantling a rocket platform), she's one day arrested for her trespasses. After being bailed out of jail, Casey receives that same mysterious pin and finds when she touches it, she's transported to Tomorrowland to take a look at of all the wonders of the potential future.
The bulk of the movie involves Casey's journey to discover what this place is and how its fate pertains to her. She's eventually joined by adult Frank, who is now a bitter loner apparently forbidden to ever re-enter Tomorrowland, and young Athena herself, who hasn't aged a day since we saw her in 1964. Essentially, TOMORROWLAND becomes something of a road movie, and while there are a few rousing bits of action interspersed throughout, Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof just don't provide enough entertainment. Honestly, the young Frank story seems way more interesting than the antics of Robertson's overeager teen, just as Tomorrowland's full backstory would be more intriguing than what it we ultimately learn about it. You could argue Bird and Lindelof have opted for the sequel instead of telling the origin story first. More frustrating still, that Lindelofian (can we make that a word?) tendency to provide more questions than answers is on full display here; you'll find yourself saying, "But I still don't understand (fill in the blank)" a dozen times after it's over.
Still, the movie appears to be zooming toward a thrilling, eye-popping finale, one with all the wizardry and excitement promised by our early glimpses of Tomorrowland itself... and that's when Bird and Co. really drop the ball. I may be a cynical man by nature, but I'm not immune to some heartfelt speechifying about the importance of saving our planet...and ourselves. TOMORROWLAND, however, eschews all urgency in favor of a heavy-handed, preachy third act, in which the Laurie character reappears to chastise humanity at large for being a war-mongering, vapid and fearful species. Thanks for the newsflash, guys. TOMORROWLAND becomes sanctimonious instead of sympathetic, completely taking the air out of the room, and when the action does rev up again, Bird can't help to salvage the mess he's made of things. I believe kids - the target audience for this film - will be bored stiff by the finale. I know I was.
There are, it should be said, a handful of wonderful sights to behold in TOMORROWLAND. Bird is still very much a skilled choreographer of action and spectacle, and a few of the action sequences are thoroughly engaging (including an amusing sequence at Frank's compound in which he and Casey must defend themselves against a swarm of robots.) The visual effects, too, are top-tier, and when TOMORROWLAND really puts its mind to it, it can wow you with its inventiveness.
But these moments are too few and far between, and you find yourself waiting through sequences of seemingly endless exposition to get to the good stuff. And, oddly enough, though the exposition is plentiful, there's still little sense to be made of what the characters are talking about. Lindelof and Bird jump through hoops to get their characters' explanations across, yet the more they talk, the less we really care. I walked into TOMORROWLAND prepared for it to be many things, but boring and talky weren't among them. Clooney and Robertson are enthusiastic participants, but they don't forge much of a connection; petty sniping is meant to pass for witty banter.
There's no question Bird's motives are virtuous; the filmmaker has made a movie that at the end of the day wants nothing more than for us to wake up and stop f*cking this place up. (WALL-E had similar motivations). But the plodding TOMORROWLAND is, unfortunately, likely to make people tune out rather than listen up.
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