There is a first time for everything. Unfortunately, Tomorrowland is the first movie directed by Brad Bird that is not great.
Expectations are naturally sky high for Bird, the genius behind timeless classics such as The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. In fact, Bird’s movies have never dipped below a whopping 94% approval rating from registered critics on Rotten Tomatoes… until the fateful release of Tomorrowland.
However, even though Tomorrowland is a pretty significant drop in standard for Bird and his team, it is not necessarily a bad movie.
MINI-SPOILER MARK: Minor plot details discussed beyond this point.
Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is an innovative teenager with a talent for understanding how things work. After getting into trouble with the law, she finds a mysterious pin among her belongings. When Casey touches the pin, she is given a brief glimpse into a futuristic and advanced world, which she then becomes obsessed with finding. As Casey attempts to investigate the pin, she meets a young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who turns out to be a robot from said futuristic world, known as Tomorrowland. Athena leads Casey to Frank Walker (George Clooney), a mysterious inventor who is initially unfriendly until he realises that Casey might be able to “fix” a catastrophic event in the near future. As the trio attempt to convince Tomorrowland’s leader, David Nix (Hugh Laurie), to take action and save the world, Casey learns about Nix’s true intentions and the complicated history between Frank and Athena.
Tomorrowland is what you expect from a sci-fi adventure. It is up-tempo from the get-go, with just the right amount of action balanced with some character development. While it certainly does not keep viewers on their heels, it never tires and never gets boring. In fact, it does a commendable job at remaining interesting throughout the course of the movie.
Britt Robertson holds her own as the pretty likeable protagonist, Casey. She is natural at bringing out the character’s inquisitive and rebellious sides, and is able to pull off the occasional comedic moments. Bird should also be commended for choosing a female protagonist; while nothing in the plot requires Casey to be female, it is much appreciated that Bird broke with tradition and chose to have a girl for the tech-savvy and adventurous lead character, a role traditionally (and still frequently) given automatically to boys. After all, Disney takes pride in giving the spotlight to the ladies, and Tomorrowland is no exception.
Praise should be given to the young Raffey Cassidy, who is a great casting choice as the kick-ass cyborg Athena. Cassidy does her job, and she does it well. She makes Athena what the character is meant to be; likeable, charming and cool. Viewers warm up to her in no time, and we both enjoy and actually want Athena’s company. She is one of the movie’s few redeeming qualities, and without her, Tomorowland might actually be a pretty bad movie.
It is a shame that Tomorrowland ultimately falls short in too many departments and is devoid of any Brad Bird magic. For a start, the plot never rises above its somewhat interesting premise. It never has any moments that are worth loving or remembering, and remains predictable throughout. Action scenes and character interactions are made to fill up the many places in which the plot is lacking, and thankfully, these sequences are actually entertaining.
And just when Tomorrowland comes across as plain and strictly by the book, the movie commits an even greater sin; when all is revealed and the true nature of events are made known in the final showdown, the plot makes a steep jump from predictably straightforward to logically and scientifically confusing in the span of 45 seconds.
For viewers who might not have caught every word that the characters said and have not been granted the time to process the information, the movie becomes downright confusing. While we do understand the grand scheme of things, the precise “problem” and the protagonist’s “solution” are potentially befuddling. There is no doubt that Casey has a flair for understanding how things work, but she is not particularly good at explaining it to those of us who do not share her gift.
Naturally, the clichéd second half is where Tomorrowland really starts to stumble. Apart from digging itself deeper into its hole of recycled plot ideas, protagonist Casey begins to take a comparatively backseat in the plot once Clooney’s character is introduced. It is understandable that the knowledgeable Frank (Clooney) must take the lead since Casey is the clueless protagonist through which the audience learns more about the plot. However, with Frank in control and his sub-plot coming into focus, Casey seems to just be tagging along for her eventual Eureka moment and prophesied contributions. The second half feels more like Frank’s and Athena’s story than it does Casey’s, and it is never a good thing to be less interested in your protagonist as time goes by.
When all is said and done, Tomorrowland is still a fast-moving family flick that consistently entertains when one is watching it for the first time. However, it does not offer anything for viewers to take away from, and this robs it of any memorability that has us repeatedly revisiting Bird’s previous films (including his directorial debut from 16 years ago).
Bird once said in the voice of The Incredibles‘ Edna Mode, “I never look back, darling. It distracts from the now.” Perhaps he should look back if that will help him revive what brought him tremendous success in the past.
In all fairness, everyone is allowed their mishaps, and it seems inevitable for a director with an exceedingly rare perfect record. But Tomorrowland is certainly not a disaster, and Bird certainly has not fallen from grace. He has merely stumbled.
Rating: 2.5/5 (TALK-o-meter: “Meh… not horrible, but not good.”)