So far this year, the blockbusters have been dark and foreboding - the sort of films that are as bombastic as they are pseudo-profound, the kind that are released into the wild with trumpets and fireworks and then go on to inflict escalating amounts of colatteral damage on property and psyche as they attempt to break records and decible levels. The Avengers battled killer robots, Mad Max battled... well, everyone. By the time the rubble cleared, studios were laughing all the way to the half-demolished bank...
So it's something of a delight to find a film that aspires rather conspires, one that looks to construct a mythology with care rather than deconstruct it with a sledgehammer. That's not to say that Tomorrowland (A World Beyond) skimps on the whizz-bang and the boom-pow, but this is the kind of film to which you can (and really should) take the whole family, safe in the knowledge that it won't scar them for life and, indeed, may well be a film they remember for some time to come.
It tells the story of intuative, inventive Casey Robertson (Britt Robertson) who is battling in vain to stop the local NASA-base being decommissioned and her father being laid off. One attempt lands her in a cell for the night and when she is released, she notices a strange new pin in her belongings. Whenever she touches it, she is given the vision of an otherwordly city full of gleaming spires and flyign rocketships. Her caring father thinks she's crazy, but she sets out to find answers... unwittingly putting herself at risk from forces who want that badge back?
But how did she get the badge and why are 'people' trying to kill her? If she believes the explanation of a young girl called Athena (Raffey Cassidy), she must seek out a cynical middle-aged man named Frank Walker(George Clooney), who decades before was offered a similar experience... but for whom it worked out far from well...
Tomorrowland is a film that mixes the right ingredients in suitable amounts. On screen there's whimsy, nostalgia, action and humour and a story that mostly stays the right side of preachy. There's George Clooney - arguably one of the most versatile and charsimatic A-Listers and director Brad Bird (whose big break was The Simpsons and has yet to find a project, animated or live-action that he can't make shine)
Disney itself may have lost a little of that fairydust over the years, becoming more synonymous (synonymouse?) with big honkin' business deals (such as purchasing Marvel, Lucasfilm etc), but is still a force to be reckoned with in the entertainment stakes. On screen it has kept its head above serious competition and off-screen its East Coast theme-park is still one of the few genuines reasons to stand your ground in Florida. So, in many ways Tomorrowland really couldn't have been made by anyone else. 'The House of the Mouse' has always had its finger on the pulse of culture, packaging innovation and marketing with gusto... if it can't sell us the future with a wave, a smile and a 'Golly Gee Whizz', who could?
And Tomorrowland is a film built - unashamedly shiny but not without genuine darker moments - on that explicit idea that if the world sucks it's because we don't make it not suck - the premise that we complain about the negatives but leave it to someone else to act on it.
"I think there's a line in the film where George's character is a kid and is asked 'Why did you make this jet-pack?' and he says 'I got tired of waiting around for someone else to make it for me...' I think that's kind of the deal. We, ourselves, loved these kind of films - ones that were looking up and looking forward. We were inspired by Close Encounters (of the Third Kind) in a way. We discussed that a lot... that idea where someone's implanted with a vision and even though it feels scary at moments, it's actually leading towards enlightenment. We hoped to make a film like that," Bird explains. "I think Walt Disney, as an individual, had a view of the future, that it was undecided but exciting. It was something that could be fun. It was something where science wasn't the enemy. It was just another thing to play with and be inspired by. So, I think, in the loosest sense we were trying to make a film that kinda came from that camp. It's not a film about the section of Disneyland that is called Tomorrowland, it's more about the idea of what 'Tomorrow' could be."
Clooney is perfectly cast here, able to use the self-deprecating humour, charm and sense of timing to ease us into a story that indirectly addresses many of the world's problems and our attitudes towards them - but does so on an all-ages level that kids and adults will appreciate. In recent years he's become a considered, informed spokesperson for various global causes - never offering easy fixes but able to speak intelligentlyon what more we could do to eleviate them. In Tomorrowland he's both dreamer and cynic, the pratfall philospher and next-to-last best hope.
"I liked the message. I thought the idea of... when I was growing up, I'd grown up in a period of time where the idea was: your voice, NOT the famous person's voice, not the politician's voice, but the individul's voice, could change the world. COULD. We saw Rosa Parks on a bus, we saw things change and we beleived, when I was growing up, that we ahd the ability to do that. I think over time we've lost sight of that a little bit. I think it's always good - and I think it's important to make a film like this - that gets to say'The future is NOT inevitable' and what seems very dark and gloomy does not necessarily have to be. We created it, we can change it. It doesn't have to just be the people with the greatest amount of power, it can be a fifteen year old...".
There will be those who scoff at the film and the hue of its rose-coloured glasses, but it's hard to remember the last truly aspirational film that wasn't overloaded with overt religious content to boot. Wisely Tomorrowland doesn't pin its bright and vivid colours to specific solutions or theology, it's simply a motivational poster write large and front-loaded with the kind of rip-roaring derring-do (robots! spaceships! magic badges!) kids will love and a seam of nostalgia that will make adults smile. That all-ages tag is not one that hinders it, but one it wears on its sleeve with pride...
"Yeah, it’s not supposed to be a horse-size multi-vitamin that will solve all your problems… it’s supposed to be a good time at the movies. But some of my favourite movies are movies that have stayed with me after I left the theatre. It’s just… that’s what I love about cinema… it almost feels like a dream that you had that was particularly vivid. And it IS a dream you can go back and revisit and find others sides to. If we made that kind of movie, that would be great for me,“ Brad notes.
“For me, the one element – particularly when you’re acting in a film – is… films are designed as an entertainment. You’re supposed to get two hours of entertainment, of relief or something else other than what you’re doing in your life. So , for me, what you want to take away is two hours of enjoyment and fun and something to talk about. If, along the way, you take the kids and you get to walk out and have conversations about other issues, that’s a bonus…” Clooney agrees.
The film isn't perfect. There's a little padding in the middle - a set-piece in the middle of Paris that's visually stunning and inventive (and just the latest film to give Tesla the thumbs up) but it's unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. There will be those who claim the film steals from the classics, sometimes overtly doffing its hat with in-jokes and props to films of yore, sometimes simply echoing them in tone. But its disingenuous to think of it as theft when it genuinely feels like Clooney, Bird and Co homaging the films that have inspired them through the years. There are moments that resonate from Big, Narnia, Rocketeer, Hugo and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In the end Bird does for steampunk and rose-coloured glassses what Tim Burton does for the dark and gothic.
But all in all, this is - at worst - a delightful kinetic film that plays to our better angels - and at best has the potential to be a timeless favourite, powered by sheer goodwill and an optimism that is undeniably infectious to all but the most grinchy of hearts.
Look too closely and some of its structure is a little wobbly with a fair share of broad-strokes, but there's no doubt of its good intentions and ultimately it sets a benchmark in a year of cinema far too fond of contemplating doom and gloom...
Tomorrowland: A World Beyond is released by Disney and arrives in cinemas across the UK this week...