Channeling “Spy Kids” by way of “Escape to Witch Mountain,” Pixar director Brad Bird’s preachy “Tomorrowland” is surprisingly lacking in imagination and diversity. And with reports that peg the film’s budget at $190 million, one wonders where the money went? But the bigger question that may haunt producers is: Can the movie make that money back?
Cinema isn’t all about the Benjamin’s, but if we learned anything from the massive failure of “Jupiter Ascending” earlier this year, huge financial losses have direct impact on the type of story that is adapted for the local metroplex. And “Tomorrowland,” like “Ascending,” is another original story attempting blockbuster when, it seems only features based on comic books can succeed in the marketplace. With its odd PG mix of pseudo-environmentalism and campy action, it remains to be seen whether “Tomorrowland” will fill an early summer family movie niche. Needless to say, this mildly amusing and sporadically entertaining sci-fi movie that is targeted mainly at under 13 youngsters may struggle in the post-Marvel universe.
The familiar but “original” narrative concerns Casey Newton (25-year-old Britt Robertson convincingly masquerading as a teen), the brilliant daughter of a NASA engineer, who gets mixed up in a futuristic struggle to save the Earth. Of course, she holds the key to our survival, but using her abilities to unlock the secret is tricky.
After being arrested for acts of vandalism targeted at trying to prevent the closing of a NASA facility, Casey discovers a Tomorrowland pin in her personal belongings. Merely touching this pin transports her to another dimension–a future world where her brilliance will be most useful. But when she investigates, Casey’s life is threatened by a number of wacky robots straight out of a “Spy Kids” movie. After a brief chase, Casey meets Frank Walker (George Clooney), a childhood prodigy who has become a hermit searching for a solution to a potentially world ending problem.
Frank and Casey are joined by Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a cute and mysterious creature, who offers a lot of answers but causes a lot of confusion in the process. And Frank and Athena have a history that complicates things more.
With the talent and resources available, I expected Brad Bird and his team to give us a story with a little more weight. Sure, the end of the world is heavy stuff, but the way this topic is presented feels very thin–we get a fast-food take on environmental collapse. Worse still, the threat is left very broad, as though the writers are fearful in isolating one catastrophic incident, like say, nuclear war, that must be averted. This vague approach even when a countdown clock is employed saps the urgency from the story and leaves us scratching our heads when the inevitable exposition-heavy conclusion ties up loose ends. To say that the ending is soft and pretty unimaginative is an understatement.
But there are laughs and some zippy action sequences throughout. George Clooney brings a knowing sadness to Frank Walker that alone could have carried a smaller, smarter film. The character of Athena is a bit of a revelation, at times, reminiscent of David from Steven Spielberg’s quickly becoming cult classic “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.”
Yet, something connective is missing here. The tone is uneven as we get outlandish, winking, comic goofiness alongside epic conflagration packaged with saccharine sentiment. It is disappointing. And when you’re betting so much on a production this enormous, “Tomorrowland” should have been much better. This is especially true as Marvel’s super heroes gobble up the box office with stories and structure that have become routine. We desperately need original narratives. Unfortunately, “Tomorrowland” just isn’t original enough.