This article contains spoilers for Tomorowland. You have been warned.
Erik: Alright, so this is, I believe, the first live-action Disney film based not on one of their rides, but a segment of the park. It’s also the second live-action film Brad Bird has directed. Beyond those two facts and the cast members, I knew almost nothing about Tomorrowland going in. After watching it, well…I guess my mini review would be: some good concepts and commendable ideas were hampered by some questionable storytelling choices. James, Rachel, what were your expectations going in and your thoughts coming out?
Rachel: Luckily, I have actually been to Disneyland fairly recently and got a sense of Tomorrowland firsthand. On the whole, I felt that the filmmakers accomplished what they set out to do, which was make a fun family film while capturing the spirit and ideas behind that section of the park. I thought that the film embodied the visuals and concepts present within the park for at least the first half of the film. The second half lost me a bit when all the characters, villains, and so on were thrown together quite quickly.
James: I can only assume Critter Country: The Movie is in some stage of development. I really had very little expectation going into Tomorrowland. For one thing, I really never got a sense of what the movie was about from the trailers or marketing materials (Disney really kept the lid on this one). On first impression, I think the movie as a whole was a bit of mess, but not without its charms. There’s a retro-vibe to Tomorrowland (I sort of felt it was a ‘80s style Amblin-like adventure film revolving around very ‘60s Walt Disney-ish thematics). The plot itself never really did much for me, but I appreciated some of the ideas behind it and Bird is such a witty visual director that I found myself enjoying the movie despite my better judgement in huge stretches.
Rachel: I am a whizz about neither animation nor sci-fi, but my favorite parts of the film were undoubtedly the scenes within the ‘60s Tomorrowland. I felt it really captured the wonder and whimsy you feel when you are actually at the park, and I think Bird’s background likely had a lot to do with that. Every set, in and out of Tomorrowland, also felt like it could be its own potential ride within the park. For example: Frank’s “fun house” scene when he and Casey are escaping the “robots” and there is some kind of surprise around every corner. There is just a clear sense of animation background present and children’s entertainment there that I really appreciated.
James: I had pretty high expectations for the look of Tomorrowland considering Bird’s animation credentials and how much I enjoyed his first live-action film, Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol. There’s certainly some knockout set pieces here, but I was blown away by the overall look of the movie. The World’s Fair sequences at the start of the movie and the first glimmers of Tomorrowland were my favorites, yet I don’t think there was anything as singular or memorable as the sandstorm in Ghost Protocol. I think Bird’s animation experience helped to defuse some of Tomorrowland’s trouble spots. He fills the screen with lots of sight gags and fun set-ups and stages the action well even if the story doesn’t ultimately hold much weight.
Erik: I did notice the film felt like it was constantly in motion, but it was never at a breakneck speed that I couldn’t keep up with (like in say, the Michael Bay TMNT and Transformers films). I guess I would call the film “fluid.”
Moving on from the visuals, let’s take a jab at the story. James, why didn’t you think it held much weight? Was it the themes? The characters? The pacing?
Rachel: For me, I think some of the plot issues had to do with the characters. The story was off to a great start in the beginning as it introduced Frank and robot Athena. I felt invested in the child version of Frank Walker. When the story finally introduced Casey, whom the promos made out to be the protagonist, she seemed a bit of an after-thought, even though we do hear her voice in the opening shot of the film. I thought Britt Robertson (Casey) did a great job with what she was given, but that was very little. She was pretty much a vessel for optimism and hope. George Clooney (Frank) seemed to be playing some version of George Clooney; that is, until one of the last scenes when he has the emotional moment with Athena. Athena was the only robot in the group, but to me, Casey and Frank might as well have been robots as well when they seemed to only be there to represent the themes.
Erik: Regarding Casey, I think the film should have started with her story first, and then shown Frank’s childhood later as a flashback. The way it was done (seeing him first), it felt like the film had two different first acts, and that really didn’t work pacing-wise. But speaking of Athena, she was the source of a huge problem I had: the relationship between her and Frank. Through Frank’s backstory, we see that he was pretty smitten with her as a child. Then she breaks his heart because she’s a robot (supposedly) without feelings. Then we see that Frank as an adult is still carrying a torch for her, and in the end he helps her to discover feelings. This is a fine story – a bit cliche, but potentially sweet. The problem: when they meet back up again Frank is an adult and Athena still looks like a child. Am I the only one who noticed this? Did it bug either of you?
James: I was mildly creeped out by it for a second, but this is the emotional beat of the film and even if the movie itself didn’t quite sell me everything I wanted about the relationship, I think the actors do. Clooney, I think, does a fine job throughout and the final scene with Frank and Athena works, I believe, mostly because the actors infuse such soul into it. It’s a little disturbing at first but I think the relationship settles into something very sweet. The young girl who played Athena (Raffey Cassidy) was pretty extraordinary, I felt. The best performance in the film.
My biggest misgiving about the film was probably the antagonists, both Hugh Laurie’s Nix character and the evil robots (they got to be a bit too Terminator-esque in a cheesy way). Nix was very underdeveloped and brought up an inconsistency for me in the story. The space memorabilia-store employees set up Tomorrowland to be a place made by the brightest and wisest minds set on making the world a better place without greed, pride, etc. If Nix is one of the founding members of this society, who ends up abusing his power through the corruption of the Tomorrowland system (using their inventions for bad), then that seems to be foreboding that a society based on hope and a lack of corruption could never successfully exist.
Erik: I hadn’t particularly thought about Nix like that. I think maybe the film was going for the idea that there isn’t ever a true utopia, or that anyone can lose their way (Nix did seem to start out with good intentions). But you’re absolutely right that he was underdeveloped. In fact, I think maybe one of the film’s biggest problems was that Tomorrowland itself was underdeveloped. Considering the film’s called Tomorrowland, we spend very little time in the titular city. Even when our heroes reach the place, we don’t see any of the people who live there, beside Nix and his guards. Maybe if we’d learned more about it and its citizens, those ideas I mentioned could have worked better.
James: Nix, as a character, was such an afterthought that I don’t really even remember his motivations at this point. In the end, Tomorrowland is a bit too elusive in the film, I definitely agree. As a place, it never fleshes out of its promise dreamt up by touching the pin. It’s a neat-looking, geographically interesting place (I loved the pools!), but too little screen time is actually spent there as opposed to just getting there. Again, I feel that has a bit to do with the compromised take of the movie as a whole – I’d love to have heard the pitch meetings and read the first drafts of the screenplay for this.
Erik: One other thing I want to bring up about Nix. Were either of you bothered by his death? Not how he died, but his death a concept. I know he was the film’s antagonist, but I never got the impression he was evil, just a cynical, selfish guy who’d given up on Earth. It just seemed like a grim end for a mostly optimistic film.
Rachel: I hadn’t really thought of the implication of his death in that way, but I get your point. I will say that the events of his death were surprising in the sense that it was a bit gruesome for this particular film. Touching on both of your previous points, I feel that the film shined most in its optimistic ideas, which were encapsulated mostly in the initial sights of Tomorrowland. When the movie started to lean toward pessimism – which started with Frank, but was more focused in Nix’s character – the movie lost its steam. Nix’s big villain monologue was essentially the filmmakers telling the audience specifically what is wrong with the world (I hate when films do this), and pulled focus from the movie they set out to make. For this reason, I wish the film was primarily, if not totally, in the ‘60s World’s Fair version of Tomorrowland.
James: Nix’s death scene was fairly alarmingly callous, I thought. Not just for a bright-colored, PG-rated movie, but also because I never felt he was an outright evildoer. Nix was a stand-in for the all doomsday callers of the world, for anyone saying that there’s no hope for the planet. It’s a depressing stance but one rooted in reality. However, ultimately I wasn’t all the surprised by the Nix’s death scene because Tomorrowland (again even though it’s bright colored and PG-rated) is fairly consistently dark. The action scenes are pretty violent all the way through and the body count (even though it’s mostly robots) is pretty high. The counter to Nix and the film’s violence is in the character of Casey, who is optimistic almost to shrill degree. When it becomes clear that Casey is the real protagonist, it changes the tone of the movie I feel. When she asks her teachers, “How can we fix this?” while they’re shouting doomsday alarms (just like Nix), that’s instantly where I felt the heart and tone of Tomorrowland was. Which ultimately was something that I admired. The characterization of Casey is problematic at times, but I liked her spunk.