"Tomorrowland," Walt Disney Pictures' love letter to the sparkling utopias it helped create, begins at the 1964 World's Fair in Queens. Young inventor Frank Walker, played by Thomas Robinson, arrives hoping to present his latest gizmo -- a jet-pack fashioned from Electrolux parts. It zooms, whizzes and bangs, but Frank has to admit: "It doesn't, technically, fly."
That's a good description of this movie, which is full of potential but never quite soars. Named for the streamlined, tail-finned Disney park that opened in 1955, "Tomorrowland" takes us to a futuristic magic kingdom that has the power to save Earth from self-destruction. It's an appealing twist on nostalgia in which the quaint optimism of postwar America just might be the answer to our present-day pessimism. The problem is that much of "Tomorrowland," from its Marvel-style action to its "Men in Black" humor, feels so yesterday.
Written by Damon Lindelof (TV's "Lost") and director Brad Bird ("The Iron Giant"), "Tomorrowland" is rich with Disney history: Frank's portal to Tomorrowland is the It's a Small World ride, which Disney re-created for the World's Fair. Flash-forward to today, and Frank (George Clooney) is an embittered recluse. He was exiled from Tomorrowland by Governor Nix (a droll Hugh Laurie) for inventing a device that pinpoints the exact date of Earth's doom. And thanks largely to climate change, it's imminent.
Britt Robertson (CBS' "Under the Dome") feels miscast as Casey, the present-day teen who discovers a magical Tomorrowland pin (the film's simplest but coolest-looking prop) and must rouse Frank from his pity party. Casey seems a bit spluttery for someone said to possess a sky-high IQ, and her can-do spirit feels more saccharine than stirring. The film's best performance comes from 12-year-old Raffey Cassidy as Athena, Frank's curiously ageless boyhood crush. In a role that requires both grown-up gravitas and girlish charm, Cassidy hits every note perfectly.
In a way, Bird's "Tomorrowland" is the inspirational call to arms that Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" wanted to be. Nolan got bogged down in scientific theory; Bird can't even explain where Tomorrowland is, exactly. Still, "Tomorrowland" delivers a loud and clear message of hope for humanity, which is a welcome thing to hear at any point in time.
LOOKING BACK ON TOMORROW
Tomorrow isn't just another day. The word has figured in the titles of hundreds of movies, including "Tomorrowland," which arrives Friday, and these four.
IT HAPPENED TOMORROW (1944) -- A reporter (Dick Powell) gets the scoop on his colleagues when an old man delivers him tomorrow's paper one day early in director Rene Clair's comic fantasy. Too bad one of the stories the newsman uncovers is his own death.
I'LL CRY TOMORROW (1955) -- No one played an alcoholic as well as Susan Hayward. She earned three of her five Oscar nominations for playing someone with a drinking problem, including torch singer Lillian Roth in this biopic. Not only did Hayward have some powerful dramatic moments, but she did her own singing.
THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW (2004) -- Talk about a chiller. A paleontologist (Dennis Quaid) has to travel cross-country to rescue his son (Jake Gyllenhaal) when a global storm hits and pushes the world into the beginnings of a new ice age.
EDGE OF TOMORROW (2013) -- Though the title sounds like it would be perfect for a daytime serial, this was actually a summer popcorn flick starring Tom Cruise as a military officer/time traveler involved in some real risky business: He must relive the day he died to stop an alien war.
- Daniel Bubbeo