Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Trouble in "Tomorrowland"

A few years ago, I remember all the film sites buzzing about a new mystery project that Disney and Brad Bird were cooking up, that had something to do with the year 1952 and Nicola Tesla.  Bird was a newly minted big name director after the successes of "The Incredibles" and "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol."  He was apparently being given carte blanche by Disney to pursue a dream project, and everyone was very excited, myself included.  

However the finished product, "Tomorrowland," doesn't mention the year 1952 at all, and only briefly discusses Nicola Tesla.  It's also very oddly pieced together, with a less than satisfying ending.  I would suspect that there was some studio meddling behind the scenes, except that this is clearly Brad Bird's movie through and through, exploring all his favorite ideas and themes and nostalgic subject matter.  I simply have to conclude that he's primarily responsible for the flaws of "Tomorrowland," which is easily his weakest directorial effort to date.  However, it's also one of his most fascinating.

"Tomorrowland" starts out well enough, introducing us to Frank Walker (George Clooney in the present, Thomas Robinson in the past), who was once a promising boy inventor, and Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a Florida teenager with a knack for sabotage.  Through their various misadventures and interactions with a little girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), we learn about Tomorrowland, a place of wonders that exists in another dimension, founded and inhabited by some of the brightest scientific minds on earth.  Getting there, however, is very difficult, especially as a force of deadly "Audio-Animatronic" androids disguised as humans is on the hunt for our heroes.

I think the most important thing to keep in mind about "Tomorrowland" is that it is designed to be a children's film.  That might seem odd to emphasize, but there aren't really many live-action adventure films these days that are squarely aimed at kids, instead of young adults.  So it's much more earnest in its aims than most jaded viewers will be expecting, and far more shameless about trying to inspire wonder and awe.  The messages about optimism and hopefulness get especially heavy-handed, but since those messages are aimed at eight year-olds, the approach is understandable.  If you're solely looking at the thrills and spectacle, "Tomorrowland" is pretty solid, offering jet pack rides, rocket launches, lots of robot blasting, and chase sequences galore.  The action-heavy first two thirds of the film could go toe to toe with just about any other summer blockbuster that came out this year.  Unfortunately, when we finally get down to the business of sorting out character arcs, big ideas, and those awfully important messages, the movie comes up short.

What's so frustrating is that Bird's aims are so clearly in the right place.  I love what he's trying to say about how buying into an apocalyptic future is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that we can get through any crisis with the right attitude and perspective.  I love how he pokes fun at our apocalypse-obsessed culture repeatedly in the opening scenes, and lovingly offers a shining alternative.  However, this makes the gaps in the worldbuilding and the odd ellipses in the storytelling all the more obvious.  An awful lot is implied about Tomorrowland, about the characters, and about sad events in the past that are never fully fleshed out the way they need to be.  The characters of Frank and Athena, for instance, have a relationship the audience is meant to be invested in, but there are key pieces of the story that have been curiously left out.  Then there's the villain, Tomorrowland leader David Nix (Hugh Laurie), who gets a great monologue in the last act that fills out a lot of character details wonderfully, but Nix doesn't have nearly enough screen time to justify it.

The way the film is structured that I think exacerbates a lot of problems.  Britt Robertson's Casey is positioned as the main character, and her performance is a good one.  However, there's so much more going on with the other leads, the narrative feels lopsided.  I can't decide whether it would have been better if Frank were the main character or a much smaller one, if we should have seen more of Tomorrowland in the past or less.  The movie does a great job of selling Tomorrowland as this space age wonderland, but I think it was a huge oversight that we never really learn much about how the community operates or the people who live there.  A huge chunk of the movie is built around getting us to Tomorrowland, to the detriment of other important pieces of the narrative.  It felt like there were flashbacks and exposition scenes taken out late in the game, particularly those involving Athena.  There are hints and allusions to offscreen events, but nothing explicit.  And that's an odd choice when the film is anything but subtle about what it's trying to tell the kids.  The final scenes lay on the sentiment so thick, it's hard to keep from rolling your eyes.

There's a lot I admired about "Tomorrowland," so much that I'm really tempted to let a lot of my criticisms slide.  You could never accuse Brad Bird of not caring about the film, or not doing his best to make it great.  There are so many talents who made laudable contributions here, so many fun little moments and charming concepts.  The filmmakers had something special here, and mostly delivered on what the ads promised - thrills and fun and a real sense of wonder.  But when it came to the kind of storytelling that I've come to expect from Bird, I wonder what on earth went wrong?

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