If anything, Brad Bird's “Tomorrowland” proves that evoking a sense of wonder isn't as easy as it looks.
Compared to the astonishing 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, it's hard to conjure up much vitriol for it. It's more of a heartbreaking disappointment than an expensive disaster. For awhile, though, it works, because its story at first is a 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 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 deflate. It could be because the movie doesn't sustain its energy over a hefty 130 minutes. Or it could be because its reality is not realistic; people places and events don’t feel like anything we know or anything we feel like fixing or escaping.
In Bird's films including “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and “Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol,” the stakes were crystal clear. Opposing forces were real and immediate.
“Tomorrowland” warns of climate change and other doomsday disasters, and hints that some vague, sinister force – like the evil corporate entity that plans to tear down Cape Canaveral, where Casey's dad works – is in charge. But 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. At the same time, these young, fertile imaginations are more powerful than anything revealed in “Tomorrowland.”
Two and a half stars
Starring: George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Hugh Laurie
Written by: Brad Bird, Damon Lindelof
Directed by: Brad Bird
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes