Review: 'Tomorrowland'

Though full of naive Disney moralising, 'Tomorrowland' is still good, clean fun
CRYSTAL PALACE: 'Tomorrowland' has serious girl power and some entertaining set pieces, but its techno optimism may send you running for a rewatch of 'The Venture Bros.'

There are two wolves fighting in Brad Bird's Tomorrowland—inside the movie's premise, I mean, not actually on screen. Which wolf wins? The script includes the haggard anecdote of the wolves named "Hope" and "Fear," putatively told by a wise old Cherokee but in truth cooked up by Rev. Billy Graham.

Bird is trying to say something here. The tricky disjointed structure, direct-to-camera address, and a few French New Wave camera devices (a pan back and forth between talking figures) demonstrates that Bird intends a serious lesson. It's a commentary on a wave of future pessimism Bird feels is blighting the future. Still, the wolf named "Box Office" snaps at the throat of the wolf named "Deep Meaning."

Tomorrowland was made in honor of the Disneyland domain, and apparently had a few scenes shot there. Its star is George Clooney as Frank: today, a reclusive, whiskery inventor, yesterday, a boy genius who travelled to an interdimensional realm via the boat in the "It's a Small World" ride. Frank is recalled to that childhood realm by the arrival of a smart young girl, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), and her British accented travelling companion Athena (Raffey Cassidy, who gives a joyous sense of wisdom beyond her years). Frank knew Athena and loved her when he was a boy. "Audio animatronic" death robots with uncanny smiles—this may be a joke about Disneyland's docents—are in pursuit of the trio; the killbots work under orders of the new dictator of that futuristic realm, one Governor Nix. Nixon, is that you?

There are only so many ways you can animate aerial shots of a city of the future, as seen from a flying POV. After the star city of Guardians of the Galaxy and Big Hero Six, the wow-fodder falls short. There are novelties: in the future city, gravity pools have given way to anti-gravity pools, where high divers do Escherian jackknives. Still, almost any chrononaut movie gives me pleasure. The steampunk chapter unfolding at the Eiffel Tower has charm, as does a death ray battle in a collectable shot, lined with merch that are souvenirs from Bird's earlier films such as The Iron Giant and The Incredibles.

Some fret about a pedophiliac tendency in this movie. Perhaps the relationship between the ever youthful Athena and the aged Frank is simply an inversion of the Peter Pan-Wendy love affair, lust-free and tragic. The way Frank never moved on from childhood sadness is a species of what happened to Humbert Humbert when he lost his first Lenore to typhus in Corfu—it's a literary kind of disappointment, the idea of a man whose muse has left him.

Tomorrowland's girl power overcomes the fact that we've seen this kind of future before. Which brings us back to the wolves—the one that wins is the one that you feed. But don't wolves feed themselves? Bird throws the Wolf of Deep Meaning a T-bone. Tomorrowland ends sappy and obvious—an endorsement of the powers of positive thinking that's as thick as a bad TED talk. (And ultimately, Tomorrowland councils killing the messenger of bad news.) Those who wondered about Bird's Ayn Rand-fancying tendencies can observe that this movie's Tomorrowland is a place where thinkers go to get away from the government. Isn't that like Galt's Gulch?

Required after Tomorrowland are palate-cleansing rewatches of the ultimate statement of retro-future disappointment. That's the saga of former boy adventurer Dr. "Rusty" Venture, running his family business right into the ground. Over the course of five seasons, the Adult Swim cartoon, The Venture Bros., contrasts 1960s techno-optimism with present-day dismay. What begins as an easy riff on Johnny Quest, cancelled 50 years ago this spring, evolves into a Pynchon-like satire of black ops and society-wide arrested development. The one pure spirit here is the deadly yet soulful Brock Samson (voiced with heartening John Wayne calm by Patrick Warburton). Even Brock is frozen in time; likely his freeze point was Mar. 28, 1973, the release of Led Zepplin's "Houses of the Holy." How will this lone wolf survive? Tune in and find out.


PG, 130 min.

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