dir. Brad Bird
The weirdest thing happened today, I left the cinema happy. It’s been a long time since that happened. Sometimes I leave the cinema excited or pensive or slightly relieved that I can stretch my legs again but rarely happy. The thing about films is, they can be clever and they can be stupid they can impress you or underwhelm you but very few are there to… You know what? A riddle.
In a fight between Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), The Haunted Mansion (2003) and Tomorrowland (2015) who wins? All three are big, Summer blockbusters hoisted aloft by famous movie star. All three are based, absurdly on theme park rides; all three are sci-fi/ fantasy adventures and they are all attempts by Disney to begin huge, lucrative franchises.
Well, obviously The Haunted Mansion loses. For one thing you forgot it existed and for another it stars Eddie Murphy and, donkeys notwithstanding he hasn’t had a decent film in over a decade. It is to the epic confrontation between Tomorrowland and Pirates that our gazes now drift. In Tomorrowland we have dependable old George Clooney who remains a box office draw despite lacking in the area of putting on silly hats and walking funny which is Jonny Depp’s bread and butter. Clooney doesn’t appeal so much to the “alternative” market, that rebellious crowd who have hoisted sass-mongers like Robert Downey Jr and Mr Depp himself to becoming kings of the box-office. Pirates, too delivers far more craaazy action, remember that wheel? Remember the squid man? Remember the silly monkey? Meanwhile Tomorrowland flounders in this regard by choosing to have its characters discuss important issues like climate change, cynicism and inactivity instead of spouting sassy one-liners. Tomorrowland has and will suffer in the box office because of this.
I was looking forward to this film for a long time, stories were floating around spreading the rumour that Brad Bird had turned down offers to helm a new Star Wars in favour of working on his pet project. The director of such films as Ratatouille, The Incredibles and The Iron Giant, Bird has an excellent track record. His films have left a strong impression on my psyche and I still refer to The Incredibles in order to make points about how stories should be told so Tomorrowland was shaping up to be something special. Fortunately Bird’s directorial flair is strongly felt throughout the film though perhaps only to those who were consciously looking for it. Part of the charm of his cartoons is the amount of expression built into his character designs. Think of the massive Mr Incredible crammed into his tiny, battered car or the wiry frame of Linguine. Everything you need to know about a Brad Bird character can be understood with a glance. It seems as though this particular quirk of his has affected the very appearances of his actors. George Clooney with greying hair is the sight of a man who was once a God in his field (the character is a great scientist,) now over the hump, now on the way down. Conversely Britt Robertson plays a fresh-faced teen ready to inherit and change a troubled world. Her sparkling eyes hint at the brilliant, optimistic mind beneath; as her career takes her further away from being known as one of Dan in Real Life‘s daughters her future is indeed looking brighter. Also making an appearance is Hugh Laurie, well matched to his cynical villain character, hidden away in an alternate dimension for Laurie does look as though he would rather be far away, playing his piano.
The trailers for Tomorrowland focussed almost solely on a fun chase through a jaded but brilliant scientist’s (Clooney) house. The sequence was fun to watch the first time, creatively displaying the influence of Bird’s career in animation but I was glad that this wasn’t representative of the film as a whole. We are instead shown an oddly paced, high concept tale about the collective attitudes of the human race to their home, their future and the implications of such an attitude. Instead of a silly kids flick about a mad inventor and a wide-eyed girl sidekick we get a rather clever post-modern discussion of the science fiction genre as a whole but despite each aspect of the film being good in its own way it doesn’t quite live up to all that it promises. I sensed that there was some difficulty in the writers’ room over how to maturely tackle the themes and plot threads that had been laid out (as is typical of a Damon Lindleoff script) but the film has its heart well and truly in the right place. It is a film that dares to be optimistic in a time when cynicism is the reigning religion. I would recommend going to see this flawed film especially if you are a fan of science fiction, there’s so much here to enjoy as I hope I conveyed above. I haven’t even mentioned George Clooney’s love story with a 13 year old girl.
review by Stephen Higham