Friday, May 22, 2015

New movie review: Tomorrowland

Writer-director Brad Bird's Tomorrowland is a lovingly assembled plea for hope and optimism.

It has been 78 years since Walt Disney Company released its first feature-length motion picture – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Now, nearly eight decades later, they finally did it. They made the ultimate Disney movie, and with nary a princess, witch, or evil queen in sight – just two smart girls and a grizzled inventor with a utopia to build, gosh dang it.

I have written here before about how we live in a cynical era for pessimistic people. Writer-director Brad Bird’s bouncy sci-fi fantasy Tomorrowland is not of these times, which makes it the perfect movie for our times. You must check your cynicism at the door, and if you forget to pick it back up on the way out, so much the better. Tomorrowland preaches a philosophy of optimism, of looking past what is wrong and asking: What can we do about it?

Britt Robertson plays Casey, a bright, inventive teenager with a mind for science and passion for discovery. She is told numerous times throughout the film that she is special, and as such, she is tasked with saving the world. If this brief plot description sounds familiar, that is because it would not be out of place attached to many recent young adult action-adventure adaptations. The difference is that Casey is not part of some Hunger Games- or Divergent-style dystopia. She is part of our world, and she must figure out a way to make the utopian world of Tomorrowland a reality before it slips from our grasp.

She is recruited by Athena (Raffey Cassidy, a relative newcomer who is also immensely talented), another younger girl with a few secrets and a knack for getting straight to the point. They are joined by an inventor named Frank (George Clooney), who has seen the best of the future and the worst of the now and can no longer imagine how the present can make it to Tomorrowland.

Hugh Laurie plays a shadowy, somewhat malevolent figure working at cross-purposes to our heroes, but I would hesitate to call him the villain. In fact, I would hazard to say there is no villain in Tomorrowland. The only enemy is negativity. After an animated prologue introducing us to the idea of Tomorrowland, the film begins with Frank addressing the audience directly, laying out a near-certain doomsday scenario for our world. However, Casey keeps interrupting him. Rather than dwell on the ramifications of failure, she wants to focus on the rewards of success.

Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof (Lost) set up this dichotomy everywhere in the film: Sink into despair and perish or rise up in hope and flourish. It is heady stuff for what could amount to a pre-teen adventure flick, but in reality, kids are the best audience for the message. Frank is representative of potential adults in the audience – world weary, beaten down, and devoid of optimism. The film argues he is capable of change, and maybe we all are, but kids do not need to change. The hope for a better tomorrow rests in the boundless imagination of children. They do not know what is impossible, only what they want to make possible.

On a filmmaking level, Bird is the perfect person to break down the barriers between what is possible and impossible. As someone who got his start in animation – an Oscar winner for The Incredibles and Ratatouille and a director and consultant for years on The Simpsons – Bird’s style embodies inventiveness and is bound only by what he and his team can imagine.

Comparisons are there to be made to The Incredibles, and as also evidenced by his Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, the man knows how to stage an action sequence – a fight and chase set on the many levels of a technologically advanced house is a particular highlight – but the work Tomorrowland most resembles might be Bird’s first feature, The Iron Giant.

If you have not seen it, do yourself a favor and seek it out. Most of what Bird finds success with here is on display in that earlier picture, which is as much an homage to E.T. as it is a riff on 1950s B-movie science-fiction stories. With jet packs, tramways, and funny-looking futuristic clothing, in many ways, Tomorrowland might be the world’s greatest B-movie. Nothing should be taken too seriously – and at one point, Frank even asks the ever-more inquisitive Casey, “Can’t you just be amazed and move on?” – but as a smart, entertaining family movie with its head and heart in the right place, it occupies rare air.

For all the film’s talk about global warming, famine, and war proliferation, not to mention it stars famed Hollywood liberal George Clooney, I can already imagine the conservative talking head backlash awaiting the film. Do not listen. That is cynicism poking its nose where it does not belong. The film is not meant to indoctrinate, as some will no doubt claim, but to inspire. It speaks to the hope inside all of us for a brighter future, but the responsibility is ours to listen.

I said up top Bird and his collaborators have made the ultimate Disney movie, which I mean as way of discussing its place in the company canon but mostly as a reflection of Disney himself. For whatever else he was, he was a firm believer in the power of imagination to make dreams come true and change the world. Tomorrowland makes those dreams tangible and gives us a blueprint for change. It is up to us to choose to follow it.

See it? Yes.

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