Having been shrouded in a cloud of mystery during filming second only to J J Abrams’ forthcoming The Force Awakens, Brad Bird’s latest feature hits multiplexes this week. Starring George Clooney (Solaris, Gravity), the film wears its homages to The Wizard of Oz and The Last Starfighter in plain sight but, unfortunately, doesn’t match the magic and charm of those inspirations.
Teenage protagonist Casey Newton, played with zest by Under the Dome’s Britt Robertson is the passionate, tech-savvy daughter of a soon to be redundant NASA engineer, a fate she is unwilling to accept, sabotaging attempts to dismantle the launch pad.
Inevitably, the authorities catch up with Casey and she is arrested, but among her possessions when they are returned to her is a badge which allows her to experience visions of a glittering utopia, a world of jetpacks and hovertrains and diving pools suspended by forcefields.
The badge is a recruitment tool-cum-aptitude test left by a renegade agent from the that world, Athena (Dark Shadows’ Raffey Cassidy) and Casey grabs the opportunity with both hands, the trail leading her into danger and to reclusive inventor Frank Walker (Clooney) who has mysterious connections to Tomorrowland. Unfortunately, Frank knows that the utopia she seeks is seriously flawed and he has become disillusioned in the world which abandoned him many years before but which now needs a new vision to save it.
A relatively simple tale about how one girl saves the future and humanity from itself is rendered unnecessarily complex by a convoluted and confusing plot that jumps around with little narrative fluency. The thrust of the plot hidden under grandiose and egregious digital setpieces underpinned by narrative incoherence, the film is overlong and relies too much on empty spectacle at the expense of genuine characterisation which is sketchy at best.
Scenes which are meant to inspire awe don’t and action sequences involving mortal danger are little more than effects showcases. With an absence of emotional engagement throughout, the film lacks the heart it might have had if the same story been filmed by Spielberg with a John Williams score where it would have been a thrilling rollercoaster. Here, it is no more thrilling than the Disney Small Small World ride which features prominently in the opening flashback scenes of Frank’s childhood encounter with Athena.
On the plus side, the production values are extremely high and it is undeniably technically flawless, and similarly the calibre of the cast is extremely high. In a supporting role as the cynical leader of Tomorrowland, Hugh Laurie’s exit line is priceless and brilliantly timed and a surprising inclusion in a Disney film, even one that boasts a futuristic cityscape on the opening credits rather than Walt’s traditional fairytale castle.
It’s heartening to see a science fiction family adventure story carried almost entirely by two young female protagonists, Clooney appearing late in the film and his grudging actions ignited by Casey’s determination and his own sense of self preservation, but it is principally nostalgia which the film trades on, particularly in the honeytrap Blast from the Past memorabilia shop, packed with decades of sci-fi fare including Bird’s own earlier creations.
Possibly intended to inspire younger audiences who won’t recall the promise of a jet powered world which might have been but never was, the message that change is possible and can be initiated by anyone is standard Disney but the prominent promotion of windpower, a contentious technology in America, is daring for the usually corporate conscious empire; perhaps change really is in the air.
Tomorrowland is now on general release and also screening in IMAX