"Tomorrowland" is Brad Bird's Jeremiad against the dystopia that is modern culture, with its yen for zombie apocalypses, environmental catastrophes and the 24 hours of fear telecast by cable news.
It's a movie for the "dreamers," the ones like its teenage heroine Casey (Britt Robertson). She's the only kid in class who asks the obvious, when confronted with lectures on nuclear proliferation, the unstable politics of much of the world and global climate change.
"Can we fix it?"
So it's not just the ponderous theme park attraction in search of a movie that this Vision of the Future sometimes seems to be. Or the dystopian critique of dystopian pop culture -- thank you, fanboys -- it actually is.
"Tomorrowland" is a sci-fi mini epic told in flashback by a girl genius, Casey, who spends her teens sabotaging a NASA launchpad dismantling project her dad (country singer Tim McGraw) is overseeing, and the one-time boy genius, Frank (George Clooney) she's come to for answers.
Casey has been chosen, as boy-inventor Frank was once chosen at the 1964 New York World's Fair. A British pixie, Athena (Raffey Cassidy, quite good) gave each of them a special "T" medallion. It's a badge that magically connects her to this alternate reality where science and reason, optimism and imagination have been given free rein.
It's all jet packs and hover-rails and skyscrapers straight out of Walt Disney's notion of what the future would be like.
But somebody is trying to keep Casey from getting there, and that's how she's thrown in with Frank. They have to team up to save the future.
Clooney makes a properly grumpy guide to this world Frank once knew, was banished from but whom Casey convinces is worth a return trip.
"The future is scary," Frank
warns. And it is, with killer robots, fights to the death (vaporization) and the odd spot of blood.
Evil Governor Nix of Tomorrowland (Hugh Laurie, never duller) wears silly Oz jodhpurs and tries to rationalize why the real world is not ready for Tomorrow, and that the self-fulfulling prophecies of our TV news of Doom is a good thing.
It's all about how "imagination is more important than knowledge" and not giving up, making "Tomorrowland" the sort of movie Walt might greenlight, when Disney thaws him out.
Young Robertson gets across a nice sense of wonder in early scenes, with the spectacle of tomorrow laid before her. But her character takes Frank's pleas too much to heart and the wonder is gone.
"Can't you just be amazed and move on?"
Bird cooks up lots of eye candy, but the dazzle wears off, and nobody really connects emotionally.
Disney keeps shoving "dreamer" as a challenge into some of its chancier films, as if daring us not to endorse their vision. But our not hugging the boring bits of this -- and there are a few -- is not because we lack imagination. That's on you, for stealing from "Men in Black."
As much as one appreciates the idea of optimism, looking for solutions instead of bemoaning the doom-laden futility of it all, "Tomorrowland" falls short. The future isn't what it used to be, but maybe it will, when Walt comes back.
2.5 stars (Grade C+)
Cast: George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Hugh Laurie.
Directed by Brad Bird, script by Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird. A Disney release.
Running time: 2:10
MPAA Rating: PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language