BRAD BIRD AND GEORGE CLOONEY TAKE AUDIENCES ON AN UNFULFILLING TRIP
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Rating: PG, Grade: C+
Is the world truly small after all?
That’s the question that lingers with me days after watching Brad Bird’s new futuristic family-friendly fantasy. The movie presents its fair share of spectacular spectacle – the initial eye-popping sequence features our central figure Frank Walker (George Clooney) as a young boy (Thomas Robinson) visiting the 1964 World’s Fair with his homemade jet pack that really works, although Bird provides us with a glimpse of Frank’s first less than successful test run that results in the poor kid thrusting and slamming his way through a field of dreams head first—but what it’s missing are more of the small moments, the foundation for the sentiment that makes us believe in the magic, even when we know its nothing more than digital effects.
Disney, as a brand, has always been about fostering that sense of wonder and inspiration, understanding that the intangibility of such ideas must be linked to our humanity. “Tomorrowland” seemingly gets it right, introducing us to Frank as a young fresh-faced boy, a wide-eyed and spunky whiz kid who simply will not take “no” for an answer, when it comes to his passion. People should be able to fly with jet packs, not for some practical purpose, but just to have the chance to touch the sky, to feel the thrill and to infect others with dreams.
That’s the high-minded creative rationale, but Frank is also driven by a desire to impress a mysterious girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) who seems intrigued by him. Right away, we see, in Frank, the effect of first love with more than an idea or a project, and that is what “Tomorrowland” needs (and ultimately fails) to nurture, which is a crime against the spirit of this narrative (and quite possibly against humanity).
Bird is a visual stylist whose past works —especially “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille”—wrapped each and every frame in a warm emotional embrace, inviting us to place ourselves, to see ourselves in those animated characters. Robinson, and those big round eyes of his, could be the most special effect Bird has ever had in his arsenal, and yet “Tomorrowland” erases him from the story, focusing instead on another character, another bright young believer, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a modern teen with a rebellious streak in her and more technologically advanced tools to play around with. The thing is though, Casey is forced on us because the present-day scenario centers on the adult Frank—you know, Clooney.
And there is something fundamentally wrong with this switch. Clooney would have worked far better as a supporting complement to a more fully developed version of that younger Frank. Young Frank has tomorrow ahead of him, a life in Tomorrowland that we never get a chance to see and appreciate, time with Athena that remains unexplored, although it is referenced through Clooney’s older Frank and his sense of loss. Bird and Clooney tell us, in one way or another, that Athena was Frank’s love, but Clooney’s longing doesn’t inspire or come close to making us believe in it.
Movies like “Tomorrowland” (and certainly Bird’s animated triumphs) don’t force audiences to rely on faith, not in matters of the heart and/or humanity. These movies are supposed to guide us with stirring testimony from their big hearts and big-hearted characters. Bird falters here by telling viewers about love and inspiration (through Clooney) rather than showing us, through Robinson, the epic highs and tragic loss on the great rollercoaster of life.