No cynicism, no snark. What! In box-office terms, that usually translates into no chance. Yet Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, a noble failure about trying to succeed, is written and directed with such open-hearted optimism that you cheer it on even as it stumbles.
Bird has kept a tight lid on plot details. And rightfully so. Discovering Tomorrowland fresh is integral to its purpose. But let’s say this much. George Clooney plays Frank Walker, a scruffy, grumpy inventor who has closed himself off from the world on his New York farm. But when we first meet Frank, played as a kid by Thomas Robinson, he’s on a visit to the 1964 World’s Fair and bursting with fun and ideas. He tries to sell scientist David Nix (Hugh Laurie) on a primitive jet pack he devised out of his best dreams. Nix shuts him down. Clooney is so skilled an actor that we never lose sight of young Frank in his performance. His childlike awe of the future is always detectable under his hard shell.
The same could be said of Bird in his animated classics (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille) and of his co-screenwriter, Damon Lindelof, who helped create the mysteries of Lost. For them, wonder keeps defeatism at bay.
Where did things go wrong for Frank and for the world he shares with us? That’s the film’s abiding theme. And Tomorrowland, the beautifully rendered symbol of a utopia where the best minds gather to plan that future, drives all the characters.
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Long ago, Frank had met a girl, Athena (the amazing Raffey Cassidy), who gifted him with a magic pin that zapped him into Tomorrowland. With Frank expelled for his sins (I’ll never tell), Athena gives her last pin to Casey (a lively Britt Robertson), the daughter of a NASA engineer (Tim McGraw). Her dreams of being an astronaut died with the space program.
For Bird, Tomorrowland is a concept corrupted, not just by evil robots who smile like Tom Cruise, but by our own casual acceptance of a coming doomsday. In The Incredibles, heroes are forced to suppress their powers. In Tomorrowland, scientists are asked to profit from a sick world, not to save it. Bird calls bullshit on that. Naive? Maybe. But even as Tomorrowland sinks into sermonizing (show is always better than tell), Bird flies in the face of PG family fun by asking audiences of all ages to actually think.