Tomorrowland: A World Beyond, film review: Like Bedknobs and Broomsticks crossed with Blade Runner

(12A) Brad Bird, 130 mins. Starring: George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Hugh Laurie, Judy Greer, Kathryn Hahn, Pierce Gagnon
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The Independent Culture

Tomorrowland is a big-hearted film, a Disney-financed sci-fi blockbuster that, like Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, can be read as an eco-parable. It fuses Mouseketeer-style whimsy with extreme portentousness. With scenes of rocket-fuelled baths and hidden spaceships inside the Eiffel Tower, robotic villains and occasional moments of bleakness, the film plays at times like a cross between Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Blade Runner.

The director, Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille), isn't afraid to tackle very serious themes. Tomorrowland, though, remains for large stretches as stubbornly earthbound as the homemade jetpack its young hero hopes will help him fly at the start of the film. For some reason, the quicksilver magic and inventiveness found in every frame of Bird's animated features for Pixar has all but evaporated here.

The film's "message" is telegraphed right at the outset. We see a grizzled-looking George Clooney talking direct to camera. "This is a story about the future and the future can be scary," he warns us. Cue images of war, pestilence and generally unspeakable grimness. Clooney's character, Frank, is talking from what seems to be a distant planet. There is a young woman at his side. The point they want to make is that the "future" is up for grabs. Humankind doesn't need to destroy itself: what it most needs to defeat is its own defeatism.

This little homily over, Clooney utters one of the best lines in the movie. "When I was a kid, the future was different." This prompts a flash back to 1964, and the World's Fair in New York. We see Frank as a doe-eyed teenage boy (played now by Thomas Robinson), entering his jetpack, made with Electrolux parts, into a competition judged by the mysterious and very haughty David Nix (Hugh Laurie).

As Bird continually makes clear, when it comes to imagining the future humans are constrained by their own knowledge and experience. The shape of things to come that was envisaged in 1964 seems quaintly nostalgic to us now. Bird evokes the period in affectionate and detailed fashion, paying attention to everything from the fins on the cars to the streamlined buses, the hats and the dotted dresses.

 

As his jetpack is examined by Nix, Frank has his first encounter with the precocious Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a girl roughly his age who appears to be Nix's daughter. She gives him a pin with the letter "T" emblazoned on it and tells him to follow her. Bizarrely, Frank accesses Tomorrowland for the first time while taking a boat trip through It's a Small World, one of the most saccharine attractions in Disney theme parks. (This is the ride in which dolls from all around the world sing in squeaky voices about the joys of global peace.) For a few grim moments, the film seems in danger of turning into a glorified commercial for Disneyland.

Thankfully, Tomorrowland itself is designed in intriguing fashion – a long way removed from the world of Uncle Walt. In creating his utopian future world, Bird seems inspired in equal measure by William Cameron Menzies, Metropolis and Star Wars, with a few nods to Jules Verne. Not that Frank spends long here.

The film's convoluted screenplay next takes us to 2003. Super-bright, super-rebellious Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), worried that her dad (Tim McGraw), a Nasa engineer, will lose his job because of cut-backs in space research, is sabotaging the lab where he works in a misguided attempt to prolong his employment. When Casey is arrested for trespassing on government property, she, too, mysteriously receives one of the "T" pins. Whenever she touches it, she is whisked away to Tomorrowland. Whether this is a real or virtual place is left open to question as she is continually jolted back from the future.

Frank's old friend Athena turns up in 2003 to look for Casey. She appears exactly as she did, with the "same charm and cute little smile" she had in 1964 when Frank met her. It's at this point the film begins to tie itself in knots. We're never quite sure which of the main characters are flesh and blood, and which are robots. Athena doesn't age – which makes it very strange indeed when she finally re-encounters Frank as played by Clooney. He is a much older man who still clearly has strong romantic feelings for her in spite of the way she betrayed him. He risks taking on a Humbert Humbert-like creepiness as he interacts with a character now so much younger than himself.

Tomorrowland is weakened by its own relentless optimism. The best sci-fi movies tend to be the darkest and most dystopian ones, in which film-makers acknowledge they can't control the future. Here, even the villains and heroines are smiley, avuncular types. We are never in much doubt that the resourceful young heroes will outwit them. This is a wholesome Disney movie aimed at a youngish audience, not a Philip K Dick adaptation.

The best moments tend to be those that are closest to animation, in which Bird is able to give his imagination free rein, Pixar-style. There is an invigorating sequence set in the dusty old midwestern farmhouse where a disillusioned Frank is hiding away from the world. What at first appears like a rundown, ramshackle place turns out to be a hi-tech fortress with gadgets lurking everywhere. Equally enjoyable is the sequence set inside the Blast from the Past Retro shop where Casey heads in search of Tomorrowland pins. Here, the flamboyant assistants (Kathryn Hahn and Keegan-Michael Key), who look as if they could be on leave from The Rocky Horror Show, give the film a much needed injection of zany humour.

Tomorrowland has a reported budget of $190m. Bird is to be admired for making a big wholesome summer movie celebrating dreamers and idealists who "never give up". It would surely have made for a better movie, though, if he had fed the "bad wolf" and let a little more darkness seep into the storytelling, too.

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