Where are our flying cars? We were promised flying cars. It’s a meme of Baby Boomers, whose ranks include Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles, The Iron Giant and Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. In Bird’s new science fantasy Tomorrowland, an elaborate fable favoring optimism over cynicism, flying cars are just the tip of the Space Mountain.
“When I was a kid,” muses worn-down inventor Frank Walker (a tractionless George Clooney), “the future was different.” The branded Disneytainment that is Tomorrowland cheerily endorses the futurism of Disney Parks, as piloted at the 1964 World’s Fair where young Frank (Thomas Robinson) totes his prototype jet pack in search of approval. There, in the nascent “It’s a Small World” ride, Frank discovers a portal into a peaceful, thriving tomorrow’s-future-today land defined by scientific advancement. Ejected from this Greenhouse of Eden, Frank grows into The Cranky Professor, waiting out the seemingly inevitable end of the end times.
Lucky for Frank, there’s an inventive young woman kicking around by the name of Casey Newton (big-eyed, gape-mouthed Britt Robertson of The Longest Ride and Under the Dome). Dedicated to staving off the obsolescence of her NASA engineer father (Tim McGraw), Casey too earns an invitation (in the form of a cloisonné “T”-pin talisman) to Tomorrowland, but getting in and staying in are two decidedly different kettles of fish, and so it is that Casey and Frank form an uneasy alliance, abetted by the aptly named, mysterious tyke Athena (Raffey Cassidy). All of this gets worked out in a cutesy narrative structure that’s as clunky as young Frank’s not-quite-there-yet jet pack, fetchingly but dysfunctionally cobbled together from a pair of Electrolux vacuum cleaners.
Admirably, Tomorrowland is a rare beast on the cinematic landscape: an original genre story. In its very existence as much as its particulars, Bird’s film (which he co-wrote with Lost’s Damon Lindelof and an assist from Entertainment Weekly writer and Lost superfan Jeff “Doc” Jensen) implicitly critiques the dark-ifying of adventure perhaps best embodied in the recent, dour Superman reboot. At one point, pointedly, Bird takes up some screen real estate with a billboard for an apocalyptic movie called “ToxiCosmos 3” (tagline: “Nowhere to go”). Indeed, the aging Frank and his antagonist David Nix (Hugh Laurie) embody a resignation about the human race and its potential for futuristic solutions to present problems like global climate change and war.
Happily, the kids are still alright, and out of the mouth of babe Casey comes the acknowledgement that although “It’s hard to have ideas and easy to give up” (an assessment of the artistic process as well as social vision), the hope is all, and there’s salvation in science and innovation. That’s a great message, but Bird and company fail at making a great movie from it, instead conjuring curiously vacant characters and curiously pulse-less whimsy. Despite dollops of wonder, a fair amount of special-effects bells and whistles, and at least one effective burst of Rube Goldbergian action, this well-intentioned film lumbers, middlebrow and tiresome, when it should be daytripping the light fantastic like the vintage-Zemeckian creature it seems to want to be: Tomorrowland’s more Tron than Back to the Future.