Brad Bird is a director best known for animation, in particular through his association with Pixar (where he directed The Incredibles and Ratatouille), although his most recent release (and first live action picture) Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol signified a move into mainstream Hollywood blockbusters. Tomorrowland: A World Beyond (that slightly pointless subtitle was added for the UK release) keeps him very much in that wheelhouse, before he heads back to animation for the forthcoming Incredibles sequel.
The project takes its (very loose) inspiration from the Disney theme park ride Tomorrowland – indeed, there is a brief sequence involving the ride itself – and from Walt Disney’s own optimistic way of thinking. Without wanting to give too much away, the film concerns a hidden city of geniuses, Tomorrowland (oddly enough, there are faint echoes of video game franchise Bioshock in the story), which becomes known to young protagonist Casey (Britt Robertson) when she is given a mysterious pin by Athena (Raffey Cassidy). George Clooney plays an embittered man called Frank, who was once a part of the city but has since been exiled. He knows something bad is coming, possibly as a result of something he did in Tomorrowland, and when he, Casey and Athena cross paths, it’s up to them to fix the future.
Bird’s film is a curious mix of the mostly good and the occasionally sloppy. It could’ve done with a tighter edit, for a start – the structure of the first act gives us not one but two backstories, both of which could’ve been cut down, meaning that the thing doesn’t really start moving until we’re half an hour in. These back-stories are introduced via an irritating ‘this is how we tell the story’ framing mechanism which isn’t strong enough to justify its inclusion. There’s quite a lot of exposition throughout, much of which could’ve been streamlined into the narrative more smoothly – there’s one lovely moment when Casey watches old videos of Frank’s past life, which only shows how much more subtle the exposition could’ve been. There are also a couple of slightly strange plot points which don’t seem to entirely add up – although in the wider context of the film, these are only minor niggles.
There is a lot to like, though. Once the two lead actresses (Robertson and Cassidy) settle into their roles, they’re a likable double act alongside Clooney’s charismatic grumbler. Cassidy in particular gets more charming as the film goes on, and the role becomes more interesting than it first appears. There are some touching moments along the way, and to be fair to Bird, he does create a sense of childlike wonder on occasion, which is to be admired. The film also has a refreshing sense of optimism running through it (in fact optimism vs. pessimism is a central theme) and a stark, environmental message that it isn’t afraid to shout from the rooftops. Yes, the dialogue in places is a tad whiffy, and some of the sentimentality is a little forced, but this is a film designed for the whole family to enjoy, and I imagine it will be enjoyed by many, particularly children.
The technical aspects of Tomorrowland are mostly solid, if less spectacular than we might expect from a $190m film. The CGI is robust but hardly mind-blowing, though some of the design work is strong, and there are some nice touches (including a visit to a sci-fi memorabilia shop, complete with multiple nods to Disney’s recently-acquired Star Wars franchise), as well as some intricate tracking shots.
At times the visuals, and indeed the sentiment, echo the films of Steven Spielberg – the film shares that director’s love of exploring remarkable worlds through the eyes of young p rotagonists. It’s a modestly successful, pure-hearted family blockbuster. The story doesn’t really match its ideals in the end, but it’s a fun enough ride while you’re on it.