Modernizing nostalgia is a tricky thing to pull off. For every “retro-futuristic” film that works, such as “Back To The Future,” there are at several half-baked flops. Think “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” “Mars Attacks,” or Peter Jackson’s wretched “King Kong” remake.
Writer-director Brad Bird’s science fiction film “Tomorrowland,” released today onto DVD, visually basks in updated 1950s Googie architecture, at once softened and brightened by the addition of twenty-first-century CGI textures. Much of the movie’s special-effects work, from the eponymous (if never actually stated onscreen) city to a spectacular baroque spacecraft, looks consciously lifted from Walt Disney’s 1955-57 “Man In Space” TV specials, which were produced in cooperation with NASA’s Werner Von Braun.
The movie is awash in Disney iconography, from a fantastic city straight out of the original designs for Epcot Center to a glorious (if, sadly, fictional) comic book and memorabilia shop touting a vinyl soundtrack album from Disney’s 1979 sci-fi bust, “The Black Hole.” Human-imitating mechanical characters take offense at being referred to as “robots,” preferring Disney’s term, “audio-animatronics,” used in our real world to describe the denizens of the Hall of Presidents and other theme park attractions.
The film’s basic plot—a plucky, smart teen takes off on a wild adventure, saving the day thanks to her own ingenuity and tenacious, optimistic character—is straight out of innumerable Disney live-action movies from the 1960s and ’70s. For anyone who spent their childhoods parked in front of the set on Sunday nights (a population which surely includes one Phillip Bradley Bird, late of Kalispel, Montana), “Tomorrowland” is essentially the best, biggest-budget episode of “The Wonderful World of Disney” ever produced.
A Frustrated Animating Creative
Bird fell in love with Disney animation at an early age and, based on an early self-made animated short, became the teenaged protégé of Milt Kahn, one of the Disney Studio’s “Nine Old Men,” the core group of animators responsible for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and the rest of the studio’s classic-era cartoons.
But by the time Bird was old enough to join the Disney company himself, the studio had lapsed into making charmless formula movies like “The Fox and The Hound.” Bird’s initial tenure there was frustrating, and brief. After leaving, he helmed the single-best episode of Steven Spielberg’s 1980s anthology series, “Amazing Stories,” a 22-minute masterpiece called “The Family Dog,” which was later spun off into a quickly-canceled weekly series.
Bird enjoyed more success as a key member of the early writing and animation teams for “The Simpsons” before returning to feature-length animation for Warner Brothers in the mid-90s. Once again, the timing was bad. Bird’s brilliant feature directing debut, “The Iron Giant,” produced just before Warner dismantled its animation division, was saddled with a terrible promotion plan and vanished on arrival in theaters in 1999. One of the last hand-animated features released by that studio, the movie later found its audience on home video and is now considered a modern classic.
Celebrating Individuals’ Contributions to Society
Part of that audience was John Lasseter, the co-founder and creative genius behind Steve Jobs’ Pixar studio. Lasseter, a former classmate of Bird’s from the California Institute of the Arts (notably, a school Bird had attended on Disney-funded scholarship) invited Bird to pitch a new animated film for the studio. The end result was 2004’s Oscar-winning smash, “The Incredibles,” followed up by 2007’s also-Oscar-winning also-smash, “Ratatouille.”
Bird’s live-action directing debut, 2011’s “Mission Impossible—Ghost Protocol,” was another box-office hit. “Tomorrowland” is Bird’s first produced original concept for a live-action film, and as such, it’s one that’s close to the filmmaker’s own heart and sensibilities. Bird revealed in interviews for “Tomorrowland” that he had declined the dream job of re-inventing “Star Wars” for the big screen in order to complete it.
Besides his ample abilities as a visual storyteller, Bird is one of the few screenwriters for big-budget action movies who’s both willing and able to inject ideas into his scripts, and not always ideas that modern audiences would expect from big-bang Hollywood blockbusters.
Like “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” “Tomorrowland” carries on and amplifies Bird’s recurring theme of the impact remarkable individuals have on their society. In this case, the plot’s kickstart comes from the recruitment of two gifted young people, roughly 50 years apart, to join a secret band of (in the film’s words) “Dreamers.”
The first, an eleven-year-old boy played by Thomas Robertson set in 1954 and subsequently by George Clooney as a disaffected middle-aged man in the present day, is a wunderkind inventor who was invited into but then cast out of an advanced technological society by leaders who lost interest in the creative impulse.
“Tomorrowland’s” protagonist, a modern-day teenager and NASA devotee named Casey Newton (played by Britt Robertson), gives voice to Bird’s opinions about the value of personal optimism. Her dramatic arc is a familiar one, not far removed from the Alvin Fernalds and Dexter Rileys of innumerable live-action Disney movies made for children in the last century.
Try the Opposite of Dystopia for a Change
The late French cartoonist Jean Giraud, better known to American audiences by his pseudonym “Moebius,” often opined that it is far easier to create a fictional negative future than a positive one. Giraud preferred the latter in his own work, taking it as more of a creative challenge. Bird obviously agrees, criticizing the current spate of dystopian fiction and its detrimental effects on the broader culture via the character of David Nix, Tomorrowland’s sort-of-villain, played by Hugh Laurie.
Looking forward through the past in “Tomorrowland” extends beyond the fantastical technology and Disney-World-on-steroids design. Casey enjoys a level of personal freedom more familiar to the “free-range” children of the ’70s and ’80s than today’s heavily supervised teens—I suspect a deliberate choice on Bird’s part. Hers is a world where the gently-moonlit nights belong to the kids, the reality of which their parents rarely have any notion of (another theme that’s repeated in her world’s fictional extra-dimensional doppleganger).
Taken as a whole, “Tomorrowland” is an archetypical summer movie for the teen and pre-teen set (again, not unlike all those Disney flicks of old) that parents and other adults can enjoy as well. The plot is suitably dizzying, with slam-bang action set pieces neatly tied together by Bird’s earnest dialogue.
For all its charms, however, it has to be admitted that this is not Bird’s best film. The third act has more than a few narrative bumps. I choose (admittedly, with no evidence) to blame those on co-screenwriter and Destroyer of Fictional Worlds Damon Lindelof, but there’s no getting around the conclusion that, like its imaginary namesake, Bird’s creation in this case is something of a grand failure.
Despite a huge promotional push “Tomorrowland” died at the box office last summer, earning only $95 million against a $190 million budget. Adult audiences complained, not unfairly, that the movie was neither fish nor fowl, falling somewhere in between a modern CGI extravaganza and a straight children’s film. After opening night, most moviegoers stayed away from “Tomorrowland” in droves.
But, as “The Iron Giant” proved, there’s always life after the multiplex, and “Tomorrowland” will be released on home video October 13. If you have kids, nieces or nephews, or even bored neighbors pining for their next summer break, “Tomorrowland” is still close to required viewing. They’ll love the adventure and action, and along the way, they’ll be exposed to sentiments they aren’t going to hear coming out of Hollywood very often.