Disney pushes all the happy buttons in a quest to bring a silver lining to our cloudy future in the Vancouver-shot fantasy that stars George Clooney as a brainy curmudgeon
Starring: George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Hugh Laurie, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key
Directed by: Brad Bird
Running time: 130 minutes
MPAA Rating: 130 mimutes
By Katherine Monk
Look, if Disney can’t sell hope, who can? So best buy into their trademarked version of Tomorrowland, because in the rising ocean of bad news about the climate, it’s really nice to escape in the gleaming piece of chrome-ornamented optimism that is the Disney brand.
Generation after generation has been raised by the squeaky-clean ethos of the Mouse House. We all cried at Bambi. And now, we all know the words to Let It Go. Disney sets the cultural milestones and seems to program our underlying narrative expectations – complete with grand sacrifice and goofy humour, but more importantly, happy endings.
Old Walt built his kingdom on a fundamental sense of optimism, not as blind faith, but as a function of pure will. It’s reflected in every manicured lawn and hyperbolic smile that greets you in the Magic Kingdom, where Tomorrowland has existed since 1959.
Back then, Tomorrowland conjured thoughts of wonder and amazement: Jet packs, personal robots, food and medicine for everyone. These days, it’s hard to work up much excitement about the future when mass extinctions and cataclysmic climate change are lurking around the corner.
For director and co-writer Brad Bird, not to mention the whole Disney Corporation, reconciling intellectual property with intellectual reality presented the biggest challenge, but they pull it off, thanks to the gracious and grumpy presence of George Clooney.
Though not quite at the Fred MacMurray stage of his acting career, Clooney approaches a little bit of James Mason’s Captain Nemo as he plays the role Frank Walker, a genius scientist who’s given up on humankind.
Hiding away in his booby-trapped house packed with Chitty-Bang-Bang gadgets, Frank has no desire to interact with anybody, but when a spunky young lady knocks on his door with lots of questions about a pin and a mysterious English girl, he opens up – just a little.
Turns out, both Frank and Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) were given pins by a kid named Athena (Raffey Cassidy). They look like something you’d buy at the Magic Markup gift shop, or something, but they’re actually transporters to a different dimension, or place, or alternate universe.
They don’t explain exactly what Tomorrowland is, but they do tell us the world today is doomed, which is why Frank is hiding. They also tell us that Casey, just by meeting Frank, might save the planet from apocalyptic hellfire because she actually believes things might get better.
Casey has faith, and like Walt, she has a will, which reduces Tomorrowland down to a fundamental equation: pessimism vs. optimism, fatalism vs. hope.
I don’t need to tell you how it ends. The interesting thing is how far the filmmakers go in order to articulate the pervading sense of nihilism that’s now part of the next generation’s Zeitgeist.
We expect Disney to give us a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, but thanks to George Clooney’s curmudgeonly scientist, we’re not getting a candy-coated version of the truth.
Frank spits out one unpleasant fact after another – a Disney take on Debbie Downer – but for every dead end he conjures, Casey is up to the challenge of turning his frown upside down.
Robertson and Clooney generate enough screen chemistry as polar opposites to keep the dynamo rotating, but sometimes, the scenes add up to little more than a verbal tug of war, with Clooney looking sour and Robertson wearing the mad grin of a kid in a cereal commercial.
The there’s the whole subplot featuring Clooney’s character as a young boy, and his crush on Athena, the girl who hands out the magic pins. The reference to the grey-eyed Greek Goddess of intelligence, wit, courage and heroic endeavour is a clever addition, and puts Casey and Frank in the same boat as Odysseus, but as big as it is, Tomorrowland doesn’t exactly feel ‘epic.’
Something about it feels stunted, and it’s because the characters fail to evolve in any significant way. Casey remains an optimist and Frank remains cranky, even though he learns to embrace hope.
The movie still delivers the dependable Disney formula thanks to the production design and special effects. It even makes the most of its Vancouver locations, giving western Canadians a unique thrill, but at a fundamental level, the movie feels forced.
Handcuffed by the happy ending edict, Tomorrowland hits a hollow note in its final frames as it beckons the big exit through gift shop.