Inquisitive teenager Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is steadfast in her belief optimism and creative ideas can overcome all obstacles, even though the world at large seems to disagree. Having lost her mom, she helps her kid brother (Pierce Gagnon) and dad (Tim McGraw) stay positive after the latter loses his job as an engineer with NASA. Unfortunately a rash attempt to sneak inside a decommissioned NASA launch pad at Cape Canaveral lands Casey in jail. Released the next day she discovers a curious lapel pin among her belongings inscribed with the letter T. Touching the pin transports Casey all-too-briefly to Tomorrowland, an incredible scientific utopia filled with huge robots and sleek futuristic buildings. Driven to seek the truth, Casey is drawn into an amazing adventure, chased by sinister robot assassins but guided by a mysterious little girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) until she encounters a grumpy, disillusioned inventor named Frank Walker (George Clooney). Frank alone knows the secrets of Tomorrowland and comes to realize Casey might just be the one person who can save the world.
Tomorrowland opens with a delightfully evocative and nostalgic sequence set amidst the New York World's Fair in 1964 that encapsulates the sense of hope, wonder and idealism animator-turned-live action director Brad Bird and co-writers Jeff Jensen and Damon Lindelof felt had somehow slipped away. That bright and shiny belief in the importance of progress, science and discovery that seemed to suggest a utopia was just a few solveable problems away. Here, infused with the can-do spirit of the early Sixties, an eleven year old Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) literally falls in love with the future as embodied by cute little marvel girl Athena. Fast-forward to the present day and Frank is suddenly a jaded, cynical adult no longer in enamored with but dreading the future as it draws ever nearer. Painful life experiences have left him convinced the world is one big, noisy, dangerous mess of insurmountable problems. Yet Frank's post-millennial successor Casey is young enough to argue self-belief, optimism and creativity can overcome any obstacle. Even in the face of shifting attitudes to science and technology, global terrorism, environmental pollution and classrooms that present a world of problems with no solutions, she miraculously retains the old can-do spirit of a bygone age.
The genius of Tomorrowland lies in uniting a child of the Sixties with a millennial whiz kid through their mutual belief in the transformative power of the imagination. In an age when heroism is too often defined by how much damage a protagonist can inflict or endure, Bird, Lindelof and Jensen have conceived a film whose very plot is the search for more creative solutions. Inspired by Walt Disney's own original intent for the theme park attraction and Epcot Centre, the film heroically champions the classic ideal of Disneyland, unshackled from corporate thinking and commercialism, embracing imagination, delighting in invention for its own sake. Sadly a great big heart is not enough to sustain a great movie. The plot suffers from structural flaws. Caught in what is almost a temporal loop for the first forty minutes, Tomorrowland contrives new ways to keep its heroes on the run but frustratingly far from any tangible goal. Our one brief glimpse of the bright and shiny hi-tech city of wonders is too much of a tease.
Audiences balked at the notion George Clooney's love interest, of sorts, was a little girl (though things actually play out far more poetic and affecting than naysayers would have you believe). Still more problematic, many felt Hugh Laurie's big confrontational speech toward the end lay the blame on the audience for society's failings. Yet one could argue, despite the script's regrettable tendency to lecture, the idea society allows our present anxieties to define humanity's future holds weight. Far from condemning the audience Bird and his co-writers call on artists and dreamers to stop reveling in the apocalypse and inspire young people to create practical solutions.
For all its flaws Tomorrowland overflows with big, bold, beautiful ideas and its vision of an all-inclusive, multiracial techno-wonderland is so very appealing. Allusions abound to Disney's own vast pop cultural legacy - even The Black Hole (1979) gets a passing nod! - from the Small World ride right down to the return of Walter Murch, thirty years after Return to Oz (1985), as co-editor. Clooney is brilliantly rumpled as the wounded idealist and co-stars Britt Robertson, so wonderful in Jon Kasdan's unjustly overlooked teen rom-com The First Time (2012), and Raffey Cassidy are splendidly sparky young heroines. Brad Bird's background as an animator translates into some endearingly crackpot set-pieces like the escape from Frank's house where the inventor springs one hi-tech booby-trap after another on the robot invaders and the rocketship hidden under the Eiffel Tower. On top of that the moment Casey finally glimpses the future that has Frank so rattled packs an emotional wallop.
If Tron (1982) can find a warm reception thirty years after the fact then so will this. Tomorrowland holds the potential to be some child's favourite movie. Like those pins Athena scatters around the world it is just waiting for the right dreamers.