Brad Bird may not be a household name, but to those in the know, this natural-born filmmaker is exceptional. Even if you’ve never seen his first feature, the mostly hand-animated masterpiece The Iron Giant, you’re likely familiar with the computer-animated Pixar classics he wrote and directed, The Incredibles and Ratatouille.
Bird spread his wings into live action with 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, where he brought his eye for cartoon physics into play, putting franchise star Tom Cruise through nearly as many superhuman paces as the family of heroes in The Incredibles. As Bird enjoys celebrating members of society who possess great gifts, the two-time Oscar winner might well be making movies about himself.
So, it’s with a heavy heart that I report that his latest, Tomorrowland, is a mixed-message mess. A science-fiction mystery adventure starring George Clooney, it continues to celebrate the exceptional, but with the unexpected implication that those who are average have no place in tomorrow’s world.
Nevertheless, the Walt Disney production’s visual marvels are apparent from the outset, when Bird whimsically replaces the Magic Kingdom in the Mouse House’s animated logo with the titular retro-futuristic cityscape. He then segues to a close-up of Clooney’s face, the Academy Award-winning actor and producer looking a bit grizzled as he directly addresses the camera: “This is a story about the future, and the future can be scary.” Clooney plays former boy genius Frank Walker, who’s interrupted by the off-camera voice of peppy high-schooler Casey Newton (25-year-old Britt Robertson of The Longest Ride). She chastises the now middle-aged, reclusive grump: “Are you sure you want to say ‘scary’?”
The two squabble over the best approach to telling the tale that’s about to unfold, and it becomes clear that neither Bird nor his co-writer, Damon Lindelof, were able to crack the film’s structure, either. It’s all setup, setup, setup, with an extended first act that starts, then restarts before nearly skipping a second act entirely, racing toward a finale that’s heavy on monologues (a device Bird comically railed against in The Incredibles) while leaving many questions naggingly unanswered. I’ll note here that Lindelof is co-creator of TV’s Lost…
Bird flashes back to the prepubescent Frank (a winning Thomas Robinson of The Switch), who arrives by bus at the 1964 World’s Fair lugging a jetpack made from modified vacuum cleaner parts. Entering an inventors’ competition, he shows his semi-functional prototype to the dour judge, David Nix (Hugh Laurie of TV’s House M.D.), who takes one look at the ramshackle device before asking, “But how would it make the world a better place?” A wide-eyed Frank replies, “Why can’t it just be fun?”
Frank catches the eye of Athena (real find Raffey Cassidy, giving the film’s richest performance), a mysterious preteen who might be Nix’s daughter, even if she knows how to smile. She directs him to discreetly follow her and Nix as they board the It’s a Small World boat ride (this is, alas, another film built around Disney theme park attractions), and Frank finds himself spirited away to an alternate dimension. Emerging on a metal catwalk in the clouds, Frank is dazzled by the colorful wonders of Tomorrowland below, like Dorothy when she first set foot in Oz. Only instead of lions and tigers and bears, he’s greeted by a hulking robot, who repairs—and enhances—Frank’s damaged jetpack before giving the boy a mechanical thumbs up.
Demonstrating his talent for cleanly presented action, Bird sends Frank swooping through the magical utopia on that jetpack, until the boy sets down directly in front of Nix, who shoots an icy stare. Cutting back to the adult Frank, he has Clooney conclude his opening monologue: “…and then everything went to hell.”
He ain’t kidding. As Casey takes her stab at telling the story, the film shifts into the much more recent past, showing the teenager sneaking out at night to sabotage equipment that’s dismantling the space shuttle platforms at Cape Canaveral, where Casey’s dad (Tim McGraw) faces unemployment as a NASA engineer “with nothing to launch.”
She may be a juvenile delinquent, but Bird also sees her as exceptional (her gift: optimism). So does Athena, who transports Casey to a second, wholly redundant reveal of Tomorrowland. Bizarrely, Athena hasn’t aged a day in 50 years. But that’s not nearly as strange as the sight of 54-year-old Clooney gazing goo-goo-eyed at Cassidy’s Athena, which the script requires in its rush to blow things up in the schizophrenic and sermonizing finale.
Proclaiming that utopia can only be achieved through positive thinking, Frank posits that society has poisoned its well by celebrating and consuming dystopian entertainments focused on crime, the collapse of social mores, environmental disaster, wars and nuclear annihilation, concluding that our favorite movies amount to a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” This, after Bird’s film has violently dismembered and abused human-looking robots, vaporized three police officers, and—in true Disney fashion—punished the token villain with death. But remember, kids: positive thinking!
Meanwhile, I’m positively thinking I’d rather be entertained by another viewing of the dystopian Mad Max: Fury Road than be told why I shouldn’t. To paraphrase young Frank, why can’t movies just be fun?
Starring George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Thomas Robinson, Pierce Gagnon, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Bauer, Matthew MacCaull, Shiloh Nelson, Judy Greer and Hugh Laurie. Written by Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof, based on a story by Bird, Lindelof and Jeff Jensen. Directed by Brad Bird. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.