After you’ve watched Tomorrowland, come back and listen to our Spoiler Special discussion with Dana Stevens and Forrest Wickman. You can also download the podcast here.
Brad Bird is an odd bird. An animating prodigy who directed his first short film at 13 and began working with a mentor at Disney a year later, he’s best known as a director of smart, visually innovative animated films, with a list of now-classic titles to his name—The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille. In addition to winning Oscars for both The Incredibles and Ratatouille, Bird also holds the record for winning more Annies (the annual award for achievement in animation) than any other single person, including one for his indelible voicing of the diminutive fashion guru Edna Mode in The Incredibles. Bird transitioned to live-action filmmaking with great success in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, whose jaw-dropping, skyscraper-scaling action sequences and inventive use of the IMAX format helped make it the highest-grossing and best-reviewed film of that franchise.
Yet Bird’s lovingly crafted fables about friendship, family, and (a favorite theme) the pursuit of personal excellence can display an ideological streak that borders on the ornery. The Incredibles, for all its kinetic energy and warm, endearing characters, is also a barely disguised libertarian parable about the natural superiority of some individuals over others, a film in which the comic-book notion of “superness” converges with Randian ideas about rational self-interest and the emergence of a merit-based ruling class. It’s possible to watch and enjoy The Incredibles without engaging with any of these themes, especially if you’re under 12 and blissfully unschooled in in the tenets of Objectivism. But once you’ve started noticing the film’s libertarian bent, there’s no un-noticing it—which is part of why, though I never get tired of Elastigirl stretching to her full length or Edna Mode inveighing against capes, The Incredibles remains one of the Pixar classics I return to the least.
With his second live-action film, Disney’s Tomorrowland, Bird returns to the studio where, on a tour at age 11, he first resolved to become an animator. (He also worked briefly at Disney out of college before moving on to television animation, working on The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and other shows.) Tomorrowland is a Disney movie in every sense: It’s from Disney, takes place in part at a Disneyland–esque utopian theme park, and is steeped in the values traditionally associated with the company—optimism, can-do spirit, family togetherness. But it’s also a deconstruction and reconsideration of those values for a less-wholesome modern age, even if old-fashioned pluck—this being a Disney movie, after all—ultimately prevails.
Tomorrowland is billed as a George Clooney vehicle—a good name to have above your title—and his handsome, slightly grizzled mug is indeed the first face we see. But this film’s overlapping time frames and multiple protagonists mean that Clooney’s Frank Walker also drops out for long stretches, to be replaced by younger heroes and heroines, including his character’s younger self. In an extended early flashback, an appealing young actor named Thomas Robinson, who’s a ringer for a preteen Clooney, plays Frank as an idealistic attendee at the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, New York (lovingly recreated right down to the “It’s a Small World” boat ride that would become a staple at Disney’s theme parks). Frank, a determined young inventor, enters and loses a competition to design a machine for the future. His homemade jetpack does have some significant design bugs—it can blast its user horizontally the length of a cornfield, but cannot actually lift anyone even an inch off the ground. Still, the snide treatment Frank receives from contest judge Mr. Nix (Hugh Laurie) seems a bit extreme, given the lad’s obvious passion and talent for engineering.
But a mysterious British girl around Frank’s age, Athena (Raffey Cassidy) takes an interest in the boy, and through her help he discovers a secret passageway (in the Small World ride, of all places) to an underground realm hidden beneath the World’s Fair. And what a realm: part futuristic theme park, part socio-technological utopia where smiling, diverse people in fully functioning jetpacks zip and swoop between sparkling modernist towers, while others dive off high ledges into swimming pools miraculously suspended in midair.
The art direction and imaginative flights of fancy during the sequence in which kid-Frank first discovers Tomorrowland are among the movie’s high points—which is one reason it’s such a downer when older Frank’s flashback gets interrupted by Casey Newton (Britt Robinson), eager to tell her own version of the story. Casey is a high-school girl in the present day with a personality that recalls the Frank Walker of the ’64 World’s Fair: nerdy, tech-savvy and irrepressibly optimistic. For reasons that take a while to sort out (truth be told, I never completely grasped all the convolutions of this time-traveling, reality-shifting story), Casey and the more jaded grown-up Frank are now working together to save the planet from imminent environmental destruction.
Thanks to the enigmatic Athena—who reappears in the present-day time frame having not aged a day since 1964—Casey comes into possession of a magic Tomorrowland pin, the kind of souvenir bauble a Girl Scout might pin to her sash. When touched, this object transports the owner to an alternate reality that seems to resemble the sparkling underground city young Frank visited so long ago. But in fact, the present-day Tomorrowland has become a dystopic ruin, presided over by Hugh Laurie in a magnificent evil-villain getup. It’s up to Casey, Frank, and Athena to defeat Nix and restore Tomorrowland to its rightful place as a kind of elitist think tank for the world’s best and brightest.
Rejecting our current pop-cultural obsession with apocalyptic dystopias, and replacing them with visions of what utopia might look like, is a brilliant idea on Bird’s part, and if done right, this film could have been an antidote for a lot of what ails Hollywood. Throughout the film we see billboards advertising a grim-looking sci-fi adventure called ToxiCosmos 3—the opposite, it’s clear, of the hopeful, forward-looking movie Bird is trying to make. But as the stakes of the struggle become clearer, Bird’s aggressive affirmation of the power of optimism begins to curdle. In essence, Bird creates a world in which simply harboring negative thoughts about the world’s environmental future is a way of directly contributing to its destruction. Then he goes on to posit the existence of an Incredibles–esque race (class? breed? All possible words sound creepy!) of special human beings whose inborn gifts for hope, imagination, and ingenuity will permit them to defeat the knuckle-dragging naysayers.
Tomorrowland is a highly original, occasionally even visionary piece of sci-fi filmmaking, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good movie. That early rush of exhilaration when young Frank first glimpses the wonders of Tomorrowland remained, for me, the emotional high point of the film. Beginning with the abrupt disappearance of Kid Clooney, I could feel myself gradually being drained of the very value this movie holds in the highest esteem: hope. (In my case, not a noble hope that the imminent destruction of the planet could be averted via “tachyons,” but the much humbler hope that the new Brad Bird movie was going to be really awesome.) I guess that means I’m not one of the select few who get to save the world.