I recently had a chance to see the tour of Disney’s Newsies at the Pantages Theater here in Los Angeles. I was really surprised by how much I like it, not that I had expected it to be bad. I find the movie it’s based on to be nearly unwatchable, so I had some trepidations about the stage version. It exceeded my expectations. One of the reasons for that was it contains a pretty full endorsement of organized labor and collective bargaining, probably not surprising considering it’s a show about the New York newsboys’ strike of 1899. Furthermore, the show is also a pretty stinging indictment of the for-profit prison system and mass incarceration. Newsies is touring the country now. It’s a splashy, dance-heavy musical aimed squarely at families, but in our current political climate, it feels almost subversive. There’s a lot of power in the message.
I felt the same way about the message at the heart of director Brad Bird’s new film, Tomorrowland. Too bad his new movie isn’t nearly as good as the stage version of Newsies.
There’s no question that Bird is a world-class filmmaker and his films consistently deal with the idea of exceptionality. Whether it’s a family of superheroes or a rat with a passion for cooking, Bird is very insistent in telling stories in which the great are allowed to let their freak flags fly.
The big idea here is nothing short of the destruction of our own futures. It’s an important idea to be sure. I’ve read some criticism that the film is very preachy about its themes, and I would agree with that. But, it didn’t bother me that characters were prone to monologuing about the future of human existence. It’s a huge issue even when the movie doesn’t work, and it needs to be talked about it, even if that doesn’t happen to be done in the most artful way possible.
Britt Robertson stars as Casey Newton, the Florida teenage daughter of a NASA engineer. Upset by the downgrading of the space program, Casey spends her night sabotaging construction equipment used to dismantle launch pads at Cape Canaveral. Casey is slipped a mysterious pin by Athena (Raffy Cassidy), a girl robot who’s programmed to recruit suitable candidates to the future wourd, Tomorrowland. The pin allows the person touching it to get a glimpse of the majesty of Tomorrowland, and, soon, Casey and Athena are being chased by villainous robots.
They need the help of Frank Walker (George Clooney giving good curmudgeon), a disillusioned man who was recruited to Tomorrowland as a boy by Athena at the 1962 Worlds Fair. Frank was exiled from Tomorrowland by Nix (a wildly underutilized Hugh Laurie) after building something that’s wreaked havoc on the place. What he built was actually the McGuffin, but more on that later.
I know what your thinking. “Tomorrowland is a themed land at Disneyland, right? Is this thing going to be another Pirates of the Caribbean, a movie that co-opts a Disneyland attraction for the sake of corporate synergy?” The answer is sort of. The Disneyland connection isn’t hidden at all. I mean Space Mountain is clearly visible in Tomorrowland’s skyline. Frank is transported to Tomorrowland literally through the It’s a Small World ride at the World’s Fair. (If you hate the song, you’re going to have to hear a little bit of it here.) From what I’ve read, the Disney references have been almost totally edited from the North American cut of the film. If you find the Japanese trailer on YouTube, you’ll see there’s a version of the movie out there that plays a lot more like a Disneyland commercial. I’m a pretty big Disneyland nerd, so my tolerance for this kind of thing may be a lot greater than other people.
The first half of the movie zips along nicely. Tomorrowland itself is beautifully designed and the CG is pretty seamlessly integrated with the live action. A confrontation with some henchmen at a comic book store is very nicely staged (and may provide a sly commentary on fandom).
But, things kind of start to bog down once Clooney shows up. That’s not on him at all. I don’t know that a movie like this, which is largely about the need for optimism, needed such a cynical character thrown into it. Also, the trip back to Tomorrowland is needlessly convoluted, consisting of teleportation to Paris to steal an antique rocket hidden in the Eiffel Tower which is capable of inter-dimensional travel. There’s a lot of running around that’s redundant and could have been trimmed.
But, once the gang arrives back to the future, things really go off the rails. Tomorrowland has morphed into a dystopian future and lies mostly in ruin. The exposition of the machine Frank built that’s causing all the problems is largely incomprehensible. It’s somehow created a self-fulfilling prophecy that’s going to lead to the end of the world in 59 days. Hugh Laurie is saddled with a speech that plays almost like Kevin Spacey’s rant against humanity in Se7en. The third act is kind of a mess.
Bird’s next film has been confirmed as the long-awaited Incredibles sequel. (The original came out 11 years ago.) The main reason for the delay was Bird saying he didn’t want to make a sequel if he couldn’t come up with a story he felt good about. That makes Tomorrowland all the more puzzling as the story being told collapses down the stretch.
Also, we’re being constantly reminded how special Casey is, but we never really see her do anything all that extraordinary. We’re just told that she “knows how things work.” One of the best ways for writers to reveal character is through their actions, so this seems like a particularly missed opportunity for us to see how important she really is.
There’s a very hopeful coda at the end about letting geniuses save the world that I think is an incredibly important message to be heard, and the movie ends with a beautiful final shot. In the state of Kansas this spring, politicians have so destroyed the local economy through reckless stupidity that several public school districts have had to end the school year early, because they didn’t have the remaining funds available. States have been slashing the budgets for public and higher education all over the country. The Chairman of the Senate Environment Committee dismisses all climate science, because he was able to make a snowball in February. How are we supposed to meet the challenges on the 21st Century if our government refuses to invest in education or our leaders are complete buffoons? We need for our best and brightest to be using their genius for more than creating iPhone apps.
Tomorrowland certainly has its flaws, but its heart is very much in the right place.