The answer to that question posed by Britt Robertson’s Casey Newton is “whichever one you feed.” By that analogy, which wolf does the future feed? Once upon a time, the future was once a wondrous and fantastical place that we embraced with open arms, but nowadays, that future seems more and more like that: fantasy. Our outlook is much bleaker in the wake of sudden epidemic, national divides, energy crises, and so much more. Nowadays, it appears the wolf of darkness is winning.
However, in an effort to combat the more pessimistic blockbuster fare about the future, along comes Brad Bird with a refreshingly optimistic and wholly original idea in the form of Tomorrowland, a concept he conceived with JJ Abrams alum Damon Lindelof. In a way, this film feels like Disney’s answer to Interstellar, creating in an of itself a very heady film with infectious adventure to spare.
Tech savvy teen and science enthusiast Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is a young woman coming to grips with her own approaching future, as her NASA engineer father (Tim McGraw) will soon be out of work after his former Cape Canaveral worksite is disassembled, and her optimistic spirit doesn’t seem to get a straight response out of any of her mentors. However, when she’s mysteriously left a pin that transports her to a new world when touched, she goes on an epic journey to discover its roots. It’s on this path that she’ll collide with the grizzled inventor Frank Walker (George Clooney), leading both of them on a whirlwind adventure that will directly shape the future.
As the titles implies, Tomorrowland is taken from Walt Disney’s original theme park creation of the same name, a place of both adventure and boundless imagination, and Bird’s idealizations with what the world can bring to the table in cinema is of fantastic quality here, so much so that he even manages to make Damon Lindelof look good. That’s not to say I hate Lindelof, as he does have a great knack for original ideas, but as a screenwriter, I’ve always considered him the George Lucas of the Abrams wheelhouse. He can build worlds, fill them with lore, and create characters, but without other writers keeping him in line (as he did with many of Lost’s best episodes), his writing is always a film’s suffering point as he can’t progress any of them satisfyingly. With this film, Bird was the best choice to flesh out his concepts.
Tomorrowland exists in a realm of unabashed positivity, calling back to old school science fiction adventures, and features Bird’s enthusiastic inner child touches from head to toe. It’s actually quite a delight to see a major blockbuster like this embrace that what its audiences want to see is exciting popcorn entertainment, and the film delivers that on all fronts, from fast paced action sequences to hilarious dialogue interplay. However, that’s not to say that it’s Disney family film roots are a detriment, as it does feel like it carries the infectious inner child spirit, yet doesn’t ignore the questions about the future that kids do and should ask. The film’s first two acts are very based in adventure meets heady concepts, but it’s in those heavy thematic ideals that dominate a hefty amount of the final act which will certainly be a leap of faith determining whether someone will like this movie or not.
In one particularly lengthy monologue during the final act, where the film’s villain and his intentions are ultimately revealed, rather than this extended speech feel like a blatant “I’m evil, and that’s all there is to it” speech, it’s actually a surprisingly deep portrayal that’s more disillusioned than evil. It’s extreme to be certain, but you actually find yourself agreeing with many of the points addressed while it goes on. It used to be that bright portrayals of the future far outweighed the more cynical and jaded views that painted the future as something to be feared and despised. Nowadays, the latter is a commonplace representation, and not for the better. In a world plagued by global warfare, disease, epidemics, obesity and starvation on opposite ends of the globe, animals on the verge of extinction, rapidly melting ice caps, rapidly swaying weather, and other such instances, we even further indulge all of these apocalyptic outlooks in our movies and TV shows. It would seem hypocritical considering how Disney themselves are such a global corporate force, but the film even manages to subvert that by giving several of Disney’s own brands a dose of self-deprecation.
Tomorrowland seeks to ask that question of where and when that balance ultimately shifted, when we stopped being the once imaginative minds we all were, but in spite of those more critical observations, is also very open minded that the future is not the lost cause that is constantly being sold to us. It’s very ambitious and masterful of Bird and Lindelof to have delivered on all these fronts, but in spite of those raving words for them, one fault with the film is its admitted unevenness. Bird was a fantastic choice to flesh out Lindelof’s ideas, but even then, there are still tendencies that even he couldn’t iron out. There are more than a few moments where Lindelof regresses into his habits of mistaking being vague for being mysterious, and the ending feels like a Deus Ex Machina that ties the thematic knots of the film much too tidily. It would honestly make an interesting guessing game over which segments were Bird’s or Lindelof’s handiwork.
On the directing front, however, Bird surely suffers from none of these vices. The same infectious energy that made previous films of his such as The Iron Giant and Ratatouille are still on full display here. Visually, Tomorrowland is a jewel of creativity, blending old fashioned and modernized future artwork in a seamless balance, and wisely balances out the heavy CGI with more practical special effects artistry. His action chops are no less impressive, edited and built up in a joyous fashion that never forgets the necessary gravity and grounded tension to convey the stakes. An early sequence of Casey experiencing the wonders of Tomorrowland in stunning one-take photography proves one of the film’s highlights, especially when matched with Michael Giacchino’s unashamedly old-fashioned and propulsive score. In regards to acting, Clooney uses his charisma well in his childlike wonder to offset his initially jaded appearance, Britt Robertson makes a reliably, incredibly charming, energetic yet serious minded adventurous lead, but its newcomer Raffey Cassidy, as the enigmatic and compelling Athena, a vulnerable yet spirited character that’s best experienced not knowing much about her, that winds up stealing the entire film.
All in all, Tomorrowland may have issues in its writing, but with just what an ambitious and impressively scaled and fun movie it is, I ended up having a blast with it anyway. Despite the potential of the Disney pedigree making it seem safe and insubstantial, Bird truly went above and beyond the material he was given to work with, taking all of Walt Disney’s outlooks on the bright future to heart, and running all the way with it. Even with as mixed a response as this movie is receiving, it’s still a film loaded with fascinating originality, and brimming with unbridled ambition and thematic contemplation, meaning it shouldn’t be discarded altogether.
So, which wolf will you feed?
**** / *****