By: Kevin Jordan
Full steam ahead.
If there’s one thing we can agree on about Disney movies it’s that subtlety is not one of their strong suits. After watching Tomorrowland, it’s safe to say that tradition continues as the message is delivered with all the subtlety of a brick to the head. Incidentally, this movie is also calling the vast majority of humans blockheads with its Hugh Laurie-delivered message – “we’ve warned you about the iceberg, but instead of avoiding it, you steer right into it.” What is he talking about, you ask? Climate change, among other things, but let’s start at the beginning.
If there’s one thing we can agree on about Disney, it’s the overarching idea of hope embedded in every Disney story and property. The concept of never losing hope isn’t unique to Disney, but not even the United States has been able to brand and market it as well as Disney (though twelve million immigrants might disagree with me on that). In case you are one of the six people who have never visited Disneyland, Tomorrowland is an area of Disneyland in which young children are scared shitless by riding Space Mountain. It’s also the area decrying that the future can be whatever you can imagine it to be (Disneyland literally refers to its designers as Imagineers); all you have to do is try. As great a message as that is for young people, life beat it out of their now-cynical parents long ago as those same parents simply wonder “how long is this line, anyway?”
(Some SPOILERS ahead and remember to keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times.)
Tomorrowland attempts to bring meaning back to that message by applying it to a real problem – that the human race is actively trying to murder itself in many different ways. The film begins with Frank Walker (George Clooney) and a steampunk, digital countdown clock telling the camera a story while being interrupted by an eager, female voice arguing with him about how to tell the story. Frank starts over and we are taken back to the 1964 World’s Fair, where a very young Frank is showing his invention – a jetpack – to a judge (Hugh Laurie) at an invention competition. A young, freckled girl with eyes the size dinner plates who looks like she popped out of an animated Disney flick, Athena (Raffey Cassidy), takes an interest in Frank and in defiance of the judge, sneaks a special button to Frank and tells him to get on the boat leading to It’s a Small World. You read that correctly – the It’s a Small World ride ridiculed by every human since 1965.
(Note: my movie buddy swore that It’s a Small World was not at that particular fair, but a little research confirmed that it was indeed there and moved to Disneyland following the Fair. What I love about the inclusion of this factoid is that it highlights what people found fun in 1964, as it was one of the most heavily visited exhibits at the Fair.)
While inside the ride, a laser scans the button and Frank is whisked off to Tomorrowland, where a robot fixes his jetpack, Frank briefly experiences what being a cartoon in freefall feels like (while falling, he performs a bunch of silly actions and sightseeing), and comes to rest in front of that same British judge who turns out to be the governor of Tomorrowland, Governor Nix. Rather than letting us explore Tomorrowland with Frank, the film skips ahead fifty years and back to Earth, where we meet Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), our main character (surprise! You thought it was Clooney, didn’t you?). Like Frank, Casey has a brilliant mind, and, like Frank, receives a special button from Athena. Except, Casey doesn’t know she has the button until after she is arrested for sabotaging equipment used to deconstruct a rocket launching pad at Cape Canaveral. You see, Casey has dreams of outer space and believes that if she stops the deconstruction, the government will magically fire Ted Cruz as head of the Congressional Science Committee (and from life in general) and NASA will start launching rockets with actual people on them again to places beyond low Earth orbit. For the record, I’d have those same beliefs if I wasn’t still stuck in line for the Dumbo ride.
When Casey touches the pin, she gets a glimpse of Tomorrowland and decides she simply has to get there. The entire middle of this film is Casey being chased by killer androids (another fun homage to Disney’s vaunted animatronics), Disney marketing its merchandising – including an entire store filled with Star Wars junk that, curiously, is missing a poster promoting Episode VII, to be released December, 2015 – and Athena hiyah-ing some of the killer androids. During that chase, we get a short reprieve when Casey winds up at Frank’s house and Frank tells her that he was kicked out of Tomorrowland for inventing a way to see the future. When Disney says “anything you can imagine” they aren’t effing kidding.
Before revealing what’s at stake, the androids interrupt and we learn that Frank’s house was booby-trapped better than McCauley Caulkin’s house in Home Alone. By this time, you might have noticed that we have spent very little time actually in Tomorrowland and when they actually get to Tomorrowland, it’s falling apart. As it turns out, Frank’s crystal ball revealed there was a 100% chance that humans were going to annihilate themselves sometime in the year 2015, by one of any number of methods – nuclear war, mass flooding, earthquakes, drought, disease, global warming, etc. In a classic villain monologue, Nix explains that they thought they could change the future by beaming images of the apocalypse directly into people’s brains so they would change their ways and save themselves, but, well, I already gave you his Titanic analogy. Thus, we arrive at the not-so-subtle message this movie is trying to deliver – “HEY!! All you numbskull climate-change deniers, war-hawks, anti-vaxxers, and eco-terrorists. Quit being part of the fucking problem! Just sit over there, shut up, and let the rational people work and maybe we can undo this huge mess you’ve made!” Or something like that.
Setting aside the politics for a moment, I found the ten year-old boy in me enjoying the movie and the actors. The film is light-hearted and upbeat and the kind of adventure I loved watching when I was young. Clooney nails the crotchety old man and his comedic timing is as good as ever. Laurie makes for a perfect cartoon villain; channeling a little Dr. House into the role. Robertson attacks her role with the enthusiasm of an entire troop of Mouseketeers and proves she’s much better than her less-than-stellarly-written Under the Dome character. Cassidy steals the spotlight, somehow pulling off her role without it coming across as overly absurd. If this movie has one flaw, it’s that it spends so little time in Tomorrowland that you wonder if the Imagineers were daydreaming a little too much when they wrote the script.
Like I said, the message in this movie is really one of eternal hope. Disney is all but begging us not to give up hope that we can overcome the people who refuse to believe (or don’t care) we’re heading for that iceberg. They even stoop to making sure that the audience knows it’s not just the scientific geniuses, but the ballet dancers and construction workers, among others, that are just as able to imagine solutions as the engineers and physicists, among others (keeping my mouth shut). And you know what? I’m okay with this. As the movie itself points out, we need wild optimism to combat a situation that gets more hopeless by the day so we can make it through a line that never seems to move.
Rating: Staunch, climate change-denying, right-wing conservatives will want their money back, but rational people will know their money was well spent.