There can often be a wide gap between what a storyteller's intentions are and their ability to actually tell the story they set out to tell and get their points across in a way that is clear and meaningful. Clearly, there is no one right way to tell a story, and when we look at the works of writer-director Brad Bird (THE IRON GIANT, THE INCREDIBLES, RATATOUILLE, and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE–GHOST PROTOCOL), we find some of the most interesting, unique, and emotionally pure means of telling stories about humanity's proclivity for destruction, family, personal expression, and... whatever the MISSON: IMPOSSIBLE films are meant to teach us (to overcome our fear of heights, perhaps?).
And it's Bird's precise and near-perfect means of storytelling that made watching his latest film, TOMORROWLAND, so frustrating. I know exactly what he was going for; he just doesn't quite get there. Or more specifically, he gets there through the most unnecessarily convoluted and confusing path imaginable. In the end, he takes what could have been a tremendous work about embracing intelligence, creativity and out-of-the-box thinking and turns it, instead, into something that is aggressively, agonizingly average.
In a slight way, TOMORROWLAND shares a bit of DNA with THE IRON GIANT, in that it addresses the idea that humanity is inherently self-destructive. The planet and all of the smart people that live on it have been telling us for decades that our destruction is imminent (via global warming, arms races, economic downfalls, exploiting natural resources, etc.), and we actively choose to do nothing about it. So the question poised near the end of the film is twofold: why is this, and if some outside force had the power to stop our destruction, why should they bother given that we don't seem to give a shit? Did I mention that these lightweight questions are brought to you in the form of a PG-rated film with many children forming the core cast? But that isn't the issue with TOMORROWLAND.
Again, the problem isn't the message; it's the ham-fisted way it is ladled into our brains by Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof (who has had his hands in WORLD WAR Z, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, PROMETHEUS, and COWBOYS & ALIENS, as well as being a showrunner on "Lost"). Another truly annoying repeat offense of this film is that it's about 75 percent exposition. It gives us giant chunks of information that explain what needs to happen next, followed by a big action sequence, and then the thing that has to happen does happen. Imagine the thrills...
I don't want to dissect the plot scene by scene, but there's a whole lot of movie before we get any real sign of George Clooney, playing the guy who is supposed to be the key to uncovering the film's big mysteries (or at least the guy who delivers the most substantive exposition). There's a ridiculous and too-cutesy framework involving Frank Walker (Clooney) and Britt Robertson's teenage character, Casey, recording a video message about their adventures (so, spoiler: they don't die). I have a strange feeling that someone at Disney looked at an early cut of TOMORROWLAND and said, "How much did we pay Clooney not to be in the first hour of this film?" and then they created these periodic interruptions of the story to remind us he's actually in it.
Frank is actually first seen as a youngster bringing an invention to the 1964 World's Fair in New York and showing it to scientist named David Nix (Hugh Laurie) and his young sidekick Athena (Raffey Cassidy), whom we assume is his daughter, mainly because of her British accent. While the invention itself doesn't quite work and young Frank is sent on his way, Athena sees something in him that she thinks would be right for a mystery project. She gives him clues to follow Nix and her through a series of hidden entrances (including a secret passage in the "It's a Small World" ride, which was introduced at this particular World's Fair) to a place where the future seems to have come true.
The film then jumps ahead to the present day, where we meet Casey, whose father (Tim McGraw) works for NASA; more specifically, he's working to tear down the local launch pad. She makes it her mission to sabotage the cranes that are being used to deconstruct it, with the hopes that this will either stop it from happening or that her dad will get a few more weeks of work out of the project. But she gets caught, and when she's sprung from jail, she finds a mysterious pin amongst her belongings. When she touches the pin, she is instantly transported to the same future world that Frank discovered decades earlier, and in a just a few short minutes she manages to take herself on a quick tour of some truly incredible sights.
Honestly, the sense of wonder that I felt during these sequences was about as good as I felt watching TOMORROWLAND. If you've been to the Tomorrowland portion of the Disney parks, you might recognize a few of the structures and accents, but what I glimpsed was more like a what a city would look like if you set a group of futurists loose over several hundred acres; it's truly gorgeous stuff, and I wish the film had spent a bit more time examining this location—or at least this version of it.
Eventually, Casey and Athena (still a child) meet and embark on a quest to find the now-grown Frank, who has fortified himself in a rundown house in upstate New York. There's a strange sequence set in a small town where Casey attempts to identify the pin at a sci-fi collectable shop (run by nerd versions of Kathryn Hahn and Keegan-Michael Key) that turns into the film's best action sequence (most of them are fairly conventional) and reveals a great deal about exactly who is attempting to find Casey, Athena and Frank, and why. But the trouble with this sequence is that it feels more like an outtake from the more adventure-minded MEN IN BLACK, and it halts a story that is already taking its sweet time getting where it's going.
Once the three are brought together, there's a lot of talking, some standard-issue running/shooting/fighting, and the occasional clever idea that usually involves interesting ways to kill robots. I could sense that the film wanted to embrace the idea of celebrating and encouraging intelligent, creative minds, but somewhere that message gets muddled and undermined about a hundred times over every time someone throws a problem at Casey and essentially tells her "Fix this," and she does. One of Bird's greatest strengths as a maker of films that kids adore is that he's great at never talking down to youngsters. Sadly, that streak ends with TOMORROWLAND, which repeatedly feels like a story that was dumbed down for mass consumption—and that is perhaps the gravest news I have to report.
There are moments I enjoyed about TOMORROWLAND, to be sure, and honestly, I do think younger moviegoers will probably get a kick out of a great deal of the goings on. It's beautifully shot by cinematographer Claudio Miranda; the special effects are something breath-taking; and the performances are solid throughout, if not exceptional. But this is a film without a definable soul, something tangible that we can grab onto to take us through this overlong (at its 130-minute running time) tale, stuffed full of fuzzy logic and junk science. This is a work where noble ideas and good intentions are supplanted by overthinking and trying too hard to please too many. More a disappointment than an utter failure, TOMORROWLAND is a classic case of a lot of people working very hard to produce something entirely average. And to a degree, it pains me to come to that conclusion, but there it is.