Tomorrowland is a crazy, disjointed mess. But it’s the good sort of crazy, and the kind of mess you want to lose yourself in, like the paint-splattered studio of an artist who has been on a mad creative tear, cranking out crazy pieces that you can’t stop poring over. This is the fifth movie former Pixar superstar Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) has directed, but it’s only his second live-action picture (his first was Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), and it feels personal in a way most big blockbusters don’t. This one really is from the heart, even though the title implies another feature-length ad for a Disney theme park attraction.
Bird, who conceived the original premise with Damon Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus) and Jeff Jensen (a longtime writer for Entertainment Weekly), thinks primarily in visuals, the way the best filmmakers do, and his collaboration with cinematographer Claudio Miranda (Fight Club, Life of Pi) has paid off with such gorgeous, imaginative images that Disney didn’t even bother to release a 3D version. The movie springs forth from the screen with a striking, radiant beauty that feels organic instead of fussed-over. It’s pure sci-fi, with giant robots and gleaming spaceships, but it also breathes and feels real.
Bird also brings the techniques he learned making animation to bear on the film the same way George Miller (Happy Feet) did with Mad Max: Fury Road. There’s a thrilling clarity to the action — whether it’s a boy careening through the air strapped to an out-of-control jetpack or the Eiffel Tower splitting vertically in half to reveal an ancient rocketship — that is a salve for the eyeball-gouging style that has become the unfortunate standard in Hollywood. Tomorrowland trades on nostalgia, but it channels it, too: It’s a high-tech, polished marvel of old-school artistry. If Walt Disney had had CGI technology available to him in the 1950s, this is how he would have used it.
Disney might have also ordered a few more script polishes, as well as demanded some cuts. At 130 minutes, Tomorrowland makes for an awfully long kids’ movie, and adults will also shift in their seats during some of the film’s duller patches. The opening scenes are troubling, starting off with an alarmingly cutesy battle of dual voice-over narrations by the inventor Frank Walker (George Clooney) and a teenage girl, Casey (Britt Robertson), as they talk about the future while a digital clock counts down to something.
A flashback to the 1964 New York City World’s Fair, in which a young Frank (played by Thomas Robinson) submits his science project to a stern judge (Hugh Laurie) and befriends an intriguing girl (Raffey Cassidy), does nothing to put you at ease. During a worrisome ride on the It’s a Small World attraction (a scene that could send more than a few Floridians scrambling for the exits, shouting “Not again!”), Bird unleashes his first big surprise, which is terrific, except that it leads to an even more troubling vista. Yes, that is Space Mountain visible in the background (not for the last time, either).
But any trepidations that you’ve been tricked into seeing a movie designed to make your kids clamor for another visit to the Magic Kingdom dissipate soon. The plot of Tomorrowland is so tangled, the early descriptions of the movie as “Interstellar for kids” don’t go far enough. Like all time-travel adventures, this one has plenty of mind-bending loops, and the way the story is intentionally structured, you’re not entirely sure what’s happening until the final 30 minutes. Even then, you will have questions: I will admit to being completely confused by the time characters started slinging around words such as “tachyons” and the dreaded “relativity,” and the movie was almost over.
I was even tempted to lean over and ask the little boy sitting next to me at the screening to explain, because he seemed to be understand everything. But he was so rapt, leaning forward in his seat, I decided not to bother him. Yes, Tomorrowland is probably too obtuse for its own good: There’s a big difference between a slow reveal that generates curiosity and suspense and a third-act exposition dump to explain everything you’ve been watching (that final half-hour, which has at least one speech too many, bears the distinct imprint of Lindelof, whose scripts often suffer from this problem).
But to concentrate on Tomorrowland’s narrative flaws or its unabashedly earnest message — it’s easier to sit back and be pessimistic about the state of the world than to do something about it — is to miss the giant, wondrous spectacle in front of you, such as a scene aboard an open-air elevator in which the protagonists can see what’s going to happen to them five seconds in the future (reading that might make your brain hurt, but Bird sells the concept with ease). At least one sequence in the film will go down as one of the year’s best setpieces: A sudden laser-gun showdown between one of the protagonists and the two clerks at a cluttered movie memorabilia store, in which Bird manages to squeeze in visual homages to practically every science-fiction picture you can think of (as well as his underrated gem The Iron Giant). Confusion never gets in the way of Bird’s main attraction, which is deft, thrilling moviemaking, including the requisite yet still astonishing scene done in one long, sustained take. Scorsese would approve.
There’s so much going on in Tomorrowland, you don’t even notice Clooney doesn’t properly enter the show until an hour in. Before then, the movie does just fine following the duo of Robertson and Cassidy, two gifted and charismatic young actresses whose terrific performances imply they don’t seem to be aware they’re acting in a children’s film. Go ahead and mock Tomorrowland if you want for its feel-good, sunshine-in-wheat-fields ending, which brings to mind the famous Coca-Cola commercial that brought Mad Men to a close last week. But there’s so much genuine wonder to go along with the sap, only the most heinous of Disney villains could hate this movie outright. Tomorrowland may or may not connect with family audiences — it’s a strange film, and at times a bit violent, although always bloodless. But the movie proves, if there was still any doubt, Bird is a contender. Somewhere, Walt Disney is smiling.
Cast: George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Thomas Robinson, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn.
Director: Brad Bird.
Screenwriters: Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird.
A Walt Disney Pictures release. Running time: 130 minutes. Sci-fi violence, brief disturbing imagery. Playing at area theaters.