I had a strangely nostalgic feeling when watching Tomorrowland. I say strange, because the movie is supposed to be about the future, yet I couldn’t help looking back, and not just because there are so many subtle stylistic elements straight out of Disneyland (at one point you can see the white Space Mountain building dotting the landscape of the movie’s titular futuristic city). It reminded me of going to the movies as a kid, back when “family film” meant something different than it does today.
Now that term generally means a film aimed at a younger audience, but I remember a time when it referred to a movie the whole family could see together. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, Disney was as renowned for these kinds of live-action adventures as they were for their animated features. On the surface, Tomorrowland may have little in common with cheesy-by-today’s-standards classics like Flubber, The Love Bug, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Escape to Witch Mountain, or The Black Hole. But it shares that same spirit of whimsy and adventure, as well as a universal appeal that will thrill kids and their parents in equal measure.
It doesn’t hurt that the young members of the cast–Britt Robertson, Thomas Robinson, and especially Raffey Cassidy–are often the most interesting on screen. Not to take anything from the always affable (even when he’s trying to be curmudgeonly) George Clooney, of course, but the kids really do hold the film together. The relationships between them are the true heart of the story, and one of the most interesting aspects of it.
It begins with a boy named Frank Walker (Robinson plays the young version of Frank), an aspiring inventor who brings his jet pack to the 1964 World’s Fair (an event, incidentally, which included many attractions created by Walt Disney himself). Frank is turned away from the Hall of Invention because his jet pack doesn’t quite work, but a strange little girl named Athena (Cassidy) takes a liking to him and slips him a pin which grants him access to an astounding, futuristic place called Tomorrowland.
Five decades later we meet Casey (Robertson), a bright young rebel who spends her nights sabotaging the ongoing demolition of a NASA platform where her dad once worked. After she’s caught and released from detention, she discovers a strange pin just like Frank’s, slipped in with her belongings. When she touches it she’s instantly transported to the same Tomorrowland, looking much as it did in 1964. The pin eventually loses power and she feels compelled to find a way back. Her search leads her to Frank (Clooney), now grown up and living as a recluse in a house full of incredible inventions, including an elaborate defense and surveillance system.
And that’s about all I can tell you without spoiling it. The film is filled with unexpected twists and turns. I was somewhat surprised to note at one point that I had absolutely no idea where it was going next. That doesn’t happen very often these days, with all the safe, predictable, by-the-numbers studio fare in theaters. It only occurred to me later that it might have been because the filmmakers didn’t know where it was going either. For the first two thirds of the film I was on the edge of my seat, as each new revelation uncovered another piece of the so-called “mystery box.” It’s not until the final third, when we get back to Tomorrowland, that it all comes apart.
If you’ve been to a Disney resort you’ve likely had the experience of riding an attraction that breaks down while you’re in the middle of it. You sit there in your vehicle for a while and then the lights come up and you see the animatronic figures for what they are and something is lost; it’s not quite so magical anymore. That’s the ultimate flaw in Tomorrowland. At some point they have to reveal the secret they’ve been teasing, to essentially bring up the lights, and suddenly this amazing world loses its luster. The internal logic doesn’t hold up under any sort of scrutiny. There are glaring plot holes, things left unexplained, and connections made out of nowhere. It only scratches the surface of a deeper mythology involving historical figures and a secret organization called Plus Ultra that I wanted to know more about. I got the distinct impression that a lot of exposition was cut out to make room for the showy action set pieces, and the film is worse for it (though with a little digging you can find a lot of this supplemental material online). I’d still say it’s enjoyable, so long as you don’t think about it too much.
Which brings me to the question in the title of this article. Should you take your kids? As long as they’re comfortable with a small amount of non-human violence (certainly no more than your average superhero movie), then go ahead and bring them along. It does get a bit preachy toward the end in delivering its ultimate message about the power of hope, idealism versus cynicism, and the battle between competing visions of the future, but there are worse messages to take away from a movie. I’d go so far as to say that kids might actually get more out of it than their parents. They’re more likely to take it at face value, not to notice the smoke and mirrors that create the illusion of an amazing spectacle. They don’t need it to make sense, they just want it to be fun. And that’s what family movies are all about anyway.