Combustible Celluloid
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With: George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Bauer, Thomas Robinson, Pierce Gagnon, Matthew MacCaull, Judy Greer
Written by: Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird, based on a story by Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird, Jeff Jensen
Directed by: Brad Bird
MPAA Rating: PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language
Running Time: 130
Date: 05/23/2015

Tomorrowland (2015)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Joyless Ride

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

If anything, Brad Bird's Tomorrowland, which opens today in Bay Area theaters, proves that evoking a sense of wonder isn't as easy as it looks.

Compared to the eye-popping images in Mad Max: Fury Road, this PG-rated, live-action Disney film doesn't really pop. It's more like a series of nifty postcards displayed as you exit through the gift shop.

Yet Tomorrowland is so well-meaning, and director Bird is so gifted, that it's hard to conjure up much vitriol toward it; it's more of a heartbreaking disappointment than it is an expensive disaster.

For a while, though, it works, because it keeps some of its story in mystery behind a magical curtain.

As it begins, two misfits, Frank Walker (George Clooney) and Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), argue about how best to tell their amazing story.

Frank goes first. In flashback (played as a kid by Thomas Robinson) he goes to the 1964 New York World's Fair to enter his invention, a jetpack, in a competition.

A strange little girl, Athena (Raffey Cassidy), gives him a special pin, and he finds himself in Tomorrowland, where his jetpack works correctly and where anything seems possible.

Years later, Athena, who has not aged, finds Casey and gives her a pin as well.

Rough-and-tumble and spunky, Casey loves her first glimpse of Tomorrowland -- shot with Bird's usual excellent grasp of color, space, and clarity -- and wants to know more. But something has gone wrong.

Once the story begins exposing and explaining things, the wonder and mystery simply deflates.

This could be partly because the movie doesn't sustain its energy over a hefty 130 minutes.

Or it could be that reality in this movie is not realistic; it doesn't feel like anything we know or anything we feel like fixing or escaping from.

In Bird's other films, The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, the stakes were crystal clear. The opposing forces felt real and immediate.

Tomorrowland warns us of climate change and other doomsday disasters, and hints that some vague, sinister force in charge of it all, like the evil corporate entity that plans to tear down Cape Canaveral, where Casey's dad works. The movie fails to find a way to make the threat graspable.

Yet, the overall message — don't give up hope — is simple and indisputable, and it seems ill-advised to steer tomorrow's great thinkers away from it. But, at the same time, these young, fertile imaginations are probably more powerful than anything shown in Tomorrowland.

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