Forwards, Backwards, and Forwards Again: The “Blockbuster Method” is Applied to Brad Bird’s ‘Tomorrowland’

Disney's TOMORROWLAND..Casey (Britt Robertson) ..Ph: Film Frame..?Disney 2015

One of the big struggles of my pop culture life has always been to understand the public’s relationship with the concept of “cool.” That is why, despite my interest in the subject, I’ve never been able to write coherently about music. Popular music, above all other arts and genres, seems to be harshly governed by a distinction between what is and isn’t cool. More often than not, I can identify what people will think is cool and what they will deem uncool. My problem is not recognizing what will people think about a piece of art, but not grasping why they think what they think about it. In my mind, there is no reason why liking Radiohead should be any less ridiculous than liking Taylor Swift (as a matter of fact, I prefer Swift immensely). Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let me tell you about Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland.

I’m pretty sure Tomorrowland is the definition of an “uncool” movie. Building off of ideas about progress and invention that could easily be described as old-fashioned, the movie is too optimistic and idealistic for its own good. It is a noble attempt to reach out to the remaining dreamers in an otherwise cynical world that has given up hope, and thus, the incredibly cynical community that is film criticism has dismissed Tomorrowland as sugar-coated cheesiness. That’s all right. Tomorrowland wasn’t made for those critics. It was made for children, and the biggest compliment I can give the movie is that, had I seen it when I was nine years old, I would have been absolutely inspired by it.

Now, it must be said that for all its noble intentions, there are in fact, a number of disappointing flaws in Tomorrowland, and there’s no better way to analyze them than to use our very own “Blockbuster Method“®…

THE PLOT

Tomorrowland is quite obviously gets its title from one of the sections of Disneyland, but the movie isn’t quite based on the theme park. It would be more accurate to say that the movie is based on Walt Disney’s ideas about the future. It’s well known that Disney, especially in his later years, had a fascination for the future possibilities of technological advancement. That is why Disneyland had a “Tomorrowland” in the first place, and why one of Disney’s biggest dreams was the creation of his “Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow” (or Epcot), a utopian paradise that would feed the creativity of innovators and inspire amazing ideas. The community never came to be, but the idea behind it lives on in Tomorrowland. 

That is why the movie starts out at the New York World’s Fair of 1964, a time when -the movie tells us- the future was still brimming with possibility. Young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) is just a boy, but he has already managed to build a jet pack. His invention doesn’t make the cut, but a mysterious girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) gives him a special pin that allows Frank to be transported to Tomorrowland: a futuristic secret world where creative minds live side-by-side and everything’s possible.

It isn’t until that prologue is over and we’re transported to the present day that Tomorrowland really gets going. As a matter of fact, I wonder if that 1964 sequence was designed as a flashback for later in the movie and transported to the beginning after some sort of test screening, because it doesn’t really do much for the movie. If anything, it kind of spoils some of the plot’s secrets even before the movie has properly started. Anyway, that proper start is the moment we meet Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a high schooler with a thirst for knowledge and invention that finds herself in the position of a magical pin that momentarily transports her to Tomorrowland.

Casey is fascinated by the incredible things the pin allows her to see, and so, she begins a quest to find a way to reach this amazing place of futuristic innovation. Her search brings her to team up with the adult Frank Walker (George Clooney) and the aforementioned Athena as they try to go back and safe a Tomorrowland that was once full of wonder, but has now fallen into uninspired decay. This sounds like a pretty cool premise for a movie, doesn’t it? Well, the problem with Tomorrowland is that by giving you this brief summary I’ve already given away roughly half of the movie.

From there, the movie goes to some interesting places. Casey’s journey is entertaining because it harkens back to the kind of old-fashioned but edgy children’s adventures that were popular in the eighties and early nineties. The kind in which typical American life is interrupted by the sudden and mysterious presence of a fantasy and science fiction element. But once we get to our destination, Tomorrowland doesn’t seem to have enough payoff to serve its own set-up. The movie’s third act provides us with thematic value, but with little wonder and less excitement than the middle section.

The screenplay for Tomorrowland –written by Bird and Damon Lindelof- is quite a mess. Too much time is spent on that ’64 flashback, and there are many aspects of the story (Casey’s family life, for example) that are not only under-explored, but treated with uninspiring laziness. That being said, Tomorrowland is far more ambitious in its themes and ideas than most of what passes for blockbuster entertainment nowadays. It certainly has its sight on a much more grandiose goal than anything Marvel has ever put out. It only manages to reach said goal sloppily, but that’s more than enough to be commended.

THE ACTION

Considering Brad Bird’s previous credits include The Incredibles and Mission: Impossible – Ghost ProtocolI couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed by the fact that there isn’t anything as iconic as the Burj Khalifa scene or Dash’s run on water in Tomorrowland. We do get a couple of great action set pieces. One of them is quite prominent in the trailers. It takes place in George Clooney’s character’s house, and makes good use of the fact that he is an inventor, and thus, has filled his house with booby-traps. It’s a pretty cool scene, but the action stand-out comes earlier in the movie. The fight is set at a nerdy vintage store, and it involves little girl Athena kicking some serious ass.

As is usual with this type of movies, however, the big climactic battle is the least exciting of the action sequences. But this is in large part due to Tomorrowland not wanting to be an action movie as much as it wants to be a children’s science fiction movie. Despite the well-choreographed scenes that come before the finale, Tomorrowland‘s biggest successes are neither its plot nor its action, but its themes.

THE HEROES

The actors who play the three main heroes do a good job of working around the movie’s limitations. Britt Robertson does well considering how, despite being the lead of the movie, Casey has by far the least developed backstory of the characters. She is introduced to us a “special” genius, but we see relatively little of her intelligence, since it’s more about her having good ideas and being an optimist than about her *doing* stuff. She is a thinker, not an inventor. Similarly, most of her motivation comes from innate thirst for knowledge, which is really nice to see in a girl character, but is not enough for the filmmakers, who tag in a relationship with her father that ends up being more cliched than meaningful.

Meanwhile, George Clooney proves to be invaluably cast as Frank Walker. He has the looks of a classic matinee star (the kind that would have graced the screens of 1964), but he plays a cranky curmudgeon who has lost the ability to dream. Frank is more of a grandpa than a movie star, but by casting Clooney, we can imagine a future in which Frank is not an isolated pessimist, but a handsome hero. It works pretty nicely, and Clooney’s game delivery of the movie’s comedy certainly doesn’t hurt.

The clear standout among our heroes, however, is Raffey Cassidy as Athena. I already talked about the awesome action sequence at the shop, but Athena has so much more going for her than being a little girl with amazing fighting skills. She is the most original and exciting character in the film because she, rather surprisingly, has the most poignant backstory and the clearest emotional arc. Athena is also a triumph of casting. Cassidy is not only a very charismatic child actor, but she has the look and attitude of a young Angela Cartwright, which makes her completely believable as a product of the 60s.

THE VILLAINS

Hugh Laurie plays the bad guy, but he doesn’t get much to do. If we’re being completely honest, Tomorrowland‘s real villain is not a person but a mindset. The movie is trying to fight against the inertia that comes with the cynicism of thinking the world is doomed. This movie argues -rather validly- that we have come to just accept the fact that the earth is doomed. That the fear of the future has made us stop dreaming, and stop fighting to make it better. If anything, Tomorrowland is designed as a call to arms, as a form of inspiration for a generation of young children, telling them that they can -and should- try to make the world better.

THE THEMES

Tomorrowland has a noble message, no doubt about it. But how does the movie go on about spreading said message? Ever since The Incredibles came out, a lot has been said about Brad Bird perhaps being an objectivist. The idea of a fantastical land where great minds are free to do whatever they want surely sounds objectivist on paper, but while Bird’s vision clearly starts with a little of Ayn Rand, it goes into far more socialistic directions. The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Tomorrowland all end with collaboration. With people not being able to do it alone, but with the world collaborating and doing their part in greatness. Such views might not be that popular in our inclusive age where every child gets a prize just by participating, but it is realistic. Some people are more exceptional than others, and that doesn’t mean that we don’t have our part to play.

This is a good place to point out how Tomorrowland‘s message can hinder the structure of the movie. By trying to be a movie about collaboration, Tomorrowland sacrifices the clarity of Casey’s hero’s journey. She is initially presented as “special”, as the one who will change the fate of Tomorrowland and the world. By the end, she has worked together with Frank and Athena to enact change, but she hasn’t been your typical chosen one. It’s an interesting discrepancy that is wrongly accentuated by the movie’s messy script. The movie could’ve done much better with Casey’s uniqueness being tossed out completely. Making her just one of many exceptional minds would’ve been the more coherent -and valuably original- way to go.

As for the movie’s ultimate message, many critics have decried the film’s sermonic approach and its hokey optimism. I find those qualities appropriately cheesy. This is, after all, a movie about caring. About taking things seriously, and about being an optimist. It’s quite telling that the movie harkens back to ’64, because while the sixties provided the culture with innumerable valuable social changes, they also ushered in decades of cynic coolness. Ever since I can remember, caring has always been uncool. Tomorrowland asks us to care. It asks us to be bright and shiny instead of dark and gritty.

The thing about Tomorrowland is that its message is far too ambitious to be perfectly supported by its execution. There is nothing particularly bad about the movie, but there is the feeling that such grandiose themes could have only worked within an equally superb product. At this point, it’s not worth it to think about what could have been. What we have, is a plucky, if imperfect, movie that spends all of its energy (and it has lots of it) trying to communicate with its audience. Tomorrowland is not only earnest, but it is proud of it. It might be old-fashioned, and it might be uncool, but its ambition is so big and its intentions so noble that I can’t help but admire it.

Grade: 7 out of 10

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6 comments

  1. smilingldsgirl · May 24, 2015

    I just read the first part bc I will see the movie Monday. It is an interesting question about what is cool and why. A lot of it goes down to marketing and a group in a boardroom deciding what will be cool that year. People think things like Radiohead are less calculated in their presentation to please a particular demographic but they are wrong.

    Now so few are willing to take a risk. That’s why we have franchise heaven. That’s why most music sounds the same as what was popular 10 or 20 or 50 yeara ago. Occasionally you get that original idea like I felt with Inception or the book The Book Thief but most things are risk free so they can make money. These can still be great but it just helps explain how things are cool.

    What bums me out is I feel like we used to enjoy things longer. When I was little I watched Little Mermaid on repeat. I loved it. That kind of hype and enthusiasm is part of the moviegoing experience. Now I feel like I get excited about something and in a snap there’s this huge backlash. It’s so annoying. Sometimes I miss finding something cool in the 90s and geeking out to my hearts content. Oh well. :)

    • Conrado Falco · May 24, 2015

      I can’t argue with your point about the backlash. It’s incredibly fast nowadays. I don’t know if it’s stronger than in the past, I just think technology has made it faster and louder. But, hey, even if backlash is annoying, it doesn’t take away the fact that you watched and loved a movie! No one can take that from you.

      • smilingldsgirl · May 24, 2015

        Very true. Frozen forever! ;)

  2. smilingldsgirl · May 26, 2015

    Ended up seeing it and wasn’t a fan. I hate to say it but I thought it was boring….And Casey got on my nerves. She’s supposed to be this genius but was completely clueless most of the time. It just dragged.

    • Conrado Falco · May 31, 2015

      My girlfriend also thought it was boring. I think that’s the main difference between people who didn’t like it and me.

      • smilingldsgirl · June 1, 2015

        Boring and funny seem to be the most subjective of all the moviegoing emotions

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