I think a key word that keeps coming to mind when thinking about Tomorrowland is “expectations". Brad Bird fans had high expectations of their director. As rumors circulated that he turned down Star Wars to continue work on this movie, expectations only continued to ratchet upward. Bird did his best to control expectations as well, in most cases the movie was teased, and as much as held back as possible. However, international trailers and previews of full scenes gave away much more of what the movie was about, which leads me to think that Disney provided some pressure to get the word out (perhaps as a reaction to that time that Andrew Stanton controlled the marketing for John Carter). That said, there was an air about Tomorrowland that led us to believe it was far more than any PG-rated family movie, but that is still what it is. Tomorrowland is a PG-rated family film from Disney. Keeping this in mind has tempered my perception of the film.
Warning: This is a spoiler-filled post about Tomorrowland. If you haven't seen it, turn back now.
I’m really wresting over my perceptions of the film. I want to love it. It includes so much of what I love in movies, but I don’t think that it stuck the landing.
I can see why detractors didn’t like the movie, and I understand why others really like it. In a way, it almost feels like defeat to hear people not like this optimistic movie. This movie pushes its positive message to a fault. It bludgeons you with a negative outlook on our society today, yet reminding us that positivity is still a choice. While it felt a little too preachy for my taste, I have to remember that this is a complicated moral to tell to younger audiences. I very much appreciate and agree with what Tomorrowland tries to get across. One of my favorite books, Abundance, resonated so much with me because it talked about how bright or future is, and how the “doom and gloom” outlook can be short-sighted. We live in an age of wonders, it just so happens that one of those wonders is allowing ourselves to be overly aware of what is going wrong in our world. Sure there are problems, but they aren't beyond solving.
For all of my love for the message of Tomorrowland, I have some issues with how it works as a movie. The structure is a bit strange, but I guess it’s good to try alternatives to the common structure of setup, then flash forward. The story seemed messy to me. It’s not quite Frank’s story, nor is it quite Casey’s story. The movie focuses on society’s habit of stamping out optimism, shows us a better place, then challenges us to make it happen. We have fun along the way, but the creators seem to want to bring the ideas to the foreground, rather than leaving them in the background for us to pick up on our own. It strings together a series of action and awe-striking sequences, but does it all hold together?
Where Brad Bird really succeeds is in the adventure and excitement of the film. As young Frank soared on his jet pack, I could not help from smile from ear to ear. Our introduction to this world was full of joy and wonder. I was reminded of the sequence on Tron Legacy when we first enter The Grid, and see the world in the computer come to live in all of its newly-realized IMAX glory. I was having a blast. The attack at Frank's home was exciting and fascinating (and I’d already seen it shown before Avengers: Age of Ultron. I have to saw, I really liked much of the action and sense of adventure as we got back to Tomorrowland.
I should also point out the acting is great. The acting is great. I particularly like George Clooney’s work here, but all of our principle actors seemed to give great performances.
Unfortunately, my experience with the tail end of the move left me feeling a bit like our heroes. I wanted that vision shown from the pin. I wanted to live in that commercial. Once we got to Tomorrowland, it didn’t live up to my expectations. I loved the characters' navigation into the past and future on the platform, but the story seems to stumble as our heroes arrived at their destination. I didn’t understand that Hugh Laurie was our villain until the platform fell onto his leg and he reached for a gun.
As I left the theater, I was confused. It seemed like my hang-ups with the move were left intentionally. I didn’t have the gratification of seeing a fully-realized Tomorrowland brought to life in the end; but the film’s message is that it is our responsibility to make it happen. I longed for a conventional villain to blame, but aren't we all to blame for squashing dreams and killing the space program? It feels like being negative about this movie at all flies in the face of its message.
The more consider what I’ve seen, the move mixed my thoughts become. There is a lot to love about Tomorrowland, but I don't think its the modern classic fans were looking for. Perhaps that is the problem. Nobody expected Maleficent or Pirates of the Caribbean to be outstanding. To some, those serve as good family entertainment (plenty of room for debate of that statement), but the film geeks may not have given Brad Bird much room to breathe. I’m not saying he and Damon Lindelof should get a pass, but I am saying that its ok for this movie to be “good”.