Sunday, May 24, 2015

Tomorrowland is Pure and Preachy Disney

The basic premise of Tomorrowland, the new Disney film from director Brad Bird, is that half the world tries to build up Mother Earth in the morning, while the other half tears it down overnight.  Mankind has an incredible inventive gift that has led humanity to wonderful achievements, however we are a race that is also inherently bent on destruction, and this dark aspect seems to be taking over our current civilization.

The story begins in 1965 with the young Frank Walker (who will grow up to be George Clooney) who attends the New York World's Fair and brings with him a half-baked jetpack gizmo that he has invented. While being rejected by Hugh Laurie (who turns out to be the villain in the piece, a fact that you know right from his first appearance) he meets the mysterious child Athena (Raffey Cassidy) who introduces him, via a magical pin, to the world of tomorrow: a remarkable skyscraper city, half Fritz Lang's Metropolis, half modern-day Dubai, which ultimately is reminiscent of a 1950's conception of the future.  In other words, it reminds one of the sleek "Tomorrowland," one of the theme lands of Disneyland/Disney World.

The future, according to the gospel of Disney, is a clean-cut place with the kind of architecture that brings to mind the futuristic designs of the theme parks as well as the memorable structures of Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. His amazing City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, for instance, seems to be the blueprint for Scott Chambliss's production designs.

But the land of tomorrow is rotten from within: it is crumbling and heading into dystopic destruction. To set things right, Athena summons Casey Newton (Britt Robinson), a teenager who has been sabotaging the dismantling of a NASA launch pad near Cape Canaveral where she lives. Obviously this is a teen who cares about space travel, and in the logic of this film one of the good guys. Her meeting with Athena, who gives her one of the magical pins, is the call to adventure that sets her on a journey where she meets the older Frank Walker, now a grizzled, discontented George Clooney living in the sticks, in a run-down house filled with interesting futuristic gadgets. The meeting of Casey and Frank, the catalyst that will bring the narrative to a climax, unfortunately takes way too long to happen. At 130 minutes the entire movie feels too overproduced and definitely too long.

Watching Tomorrowland is very much like attending the future section of EPCOT.  The sense of optimism overwhelms you. Nothing wrong with that. Frank Capra built a career based on it, and so did Walt Disney! What I find a bit troubling are the constant self-references. The entire film is a Disney infomercial. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was based on a park ride, but the films, especially the first of the series, was so successful artistically that you forgot the shameless plug and you concentrated on the new myth the film was developing. No such luck with Tomorrowland, which looks to the future, but deep down is just interested in first week earnings.

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