Past the Popcorn: George Clooney Anchors Serviceable Tomorrowland

by Jeff Walls

In 2003, Disney struck it big when they turned one of their amusement park attractions, “Pirates of the Caribbean”, into a multi-million dollar movie franchise. If a movie based on a single attraction could be so successful, imagine what a movie based on an entire section of Disneyland might do! That might not have exactly been the thinking that led to the new movie Tomorrowland, but the movie is nevertheless the Disney Company’s newest attempt to turn part of their theme park into a movie franchise. The hope, of course, is that the movie turns out to be more Pirates of the Caribbean and less Haunted Mansion.

After an awkward opening device that has star George Clooney talking directly into the camera, the movie transports us back to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. There, an ambitious and optimistic young inventor named Frank Walker hopes to introduce the world to his jetpack invention. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exactly work. Nevertheless, it inspires a young girl named Athena to invite him into a world beyond his imagination.

tomorrowland-insetFast-forward forty years or so and we are introduced to Casey Newton. Casey is the daughter of a NASA engineer who dreams of one day going to space. Her hopes and dreams lead her to rebel against those who are planning to scrap the launching platform at Cape Canaveral. Her efforts lead her to the attention of an interested party who leaves behind a pin that, when touched by Casey, transports her to that incredible world Frank was in awe of years ago. When she meets the now-adult Frank, however, she learns that the world she saw no longer exists as she experienced it. Never one to give up, Casey enlists Frank’s help to try and recover the magic of that lost world.

In terms of its standing in relation to Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion, Tomorrowland falls somewhere in between. Although there are a few awe-inspiring visual touches here and there (those swimming pools!), on the whole, the movie is rather bland visually. The same can be said for the action scenes and the special effects. Even some of the inventions-of-tomorrow looked outdated by today’s standards. For example, a digital newspaper may look cool, but who is going to hold a regular newspaper-sized digital screen when they could read the same thing on their much smaller tablet or even smaller phone?

Tomorrowland the city looks like a golden version of the Emerald City and is populated with people who look like they took fashion advice from the future citizens of Back to the Future 2 and Demolition Man. There are monorails that travel around the city—minus the rails—and rocket ships taking off all around us. Any Disney fan will recognize Space Mountain as one of the city’s many buildings, but aside from that, the references to other Tomorrowland attractions are few and far between. There are, however, plenty of references to classic sci-fi movies and television shows in an early scene that takes place at a novelty store.

Tomorrowland’s story shares a good message of the need for continued optimism, hope, and imagination in a world that is increasingly haunted by violence and pessimism. That story is told in such a clumsy way, however, that it does not really work as intended. For instance, it seems like a misstep to open the movie with young Frank’s encounter with the city of Tomorrowland as it lessens the impact of Casey’s first visit and it is Casey with whom the audience is supposed to connect. Imagine if Spielberg would have shown us the shark in Jaws right away; then the scene when the shark pops out at Roy Scheider would have been far less effective. Perhaps the movie would have been better served to have the young Frank scenes be flashbacks instead.

While nothing amazing, Tomorrowland does entertain and the star power of George Clooney helps the movie, but it is unlikely to set the world on fire the way the original Pirates of the Caribbean movie did. Although I give Disney credit for trying to create a new franchise in a time that is dominated by sequels and reboots, Tomorrowland might not have enough to it to be that next big franchise.

Tomorrowland opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16 and AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Eat local before you go!

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