The good news about "Tomorrowland" is that, as directed and co-written by the gifted Brad Bird, it's the rare tentpole movie with a sense of adventure, a big summer extravaganza that's eager to do things differently.
Ambition, however, is not the same as execution, and it's also true, sadly, that, as much as you wish it were otherwise, "Tomorrowland" works in only fits and starts. Tentpoles are rarely guilty of overreaching, but "Tomorrowland" has a tendency to feel out of control, a film that is finally more ambitious than accomplished.
Bird himself, best known for writing and directing brilliant animation like "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille," hinted at "Tomorrowland's" difficulties when he puckishly described it at a screening as "a science fiction action adventure road movie fable, kind of."
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"Tomorrowland" attempts to be many movies in one, simultaneously modern and old-fashioned, action-filled and comic, effects-heavy and emotional. There's a high degree of difficulty involved in doing it all. Part of the problem may be that this tale, which posits the existence of an actual Tomorrowland in another dimension and details the efforts of two intrepid folk, played by George Clooney and "The Longest Ride's" Britt Robertson, to get there, did not have the most organic of births.
Rather it stemmed in part from Disney's corporate desire to do more with celebrated brands like the Tomorrowland area of Disneyland. Perhaps overcompensating, the overly complicated "Tomorrowland" script by Bird and "Lost" co-creator Damon Lindelof from a story credited to them and Jeff Jensen has too much going on and takes too long to get around to its central action.
Things start with an awkward framing device that introduces two seemingly mismatched folks bickering about a message about the future they want to send out to their fellow citizens of Earth.
Frank Walker (Clooney) is a cranky gentleman of a certain age who does not have much hope for that future. Young Casey Newton (Robertson), however, is optimistic about what is to come and wants their joint message to reflect that.
What these two can agree on is that back when Frank was a bright young boy (played by Thomas Robinson) who brings an invention of his own to New York's 1964 World's Fair, the future was a much brighter affair.
At the fair Frank meets David Nix (Hugh Laurie), a scientist who doesn't have much patience for him, and Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a girl his own age who takes a liking to him.
Athena gives Frank a bright and shiny Tomorrowland pin that takes him to that actual land, a happy place (shot in part in the City of Arts & Sciences in Valencia, Spain) where technology is busy 24-7 solving everyone's problems.
At the same time as young Frank's story is unfolding, "Tomorrowland" introduces us to the energetic, optimistic Casey Newton (played by Robertson, whose buoyant energy is one of the film's pluses), a young woman who does not believe in negative thinking.
Worried that her engineer dad (Tim McGraw) will be out of a job should officials shut down the space facility at Cape Canaveral, Fla., where he works, Casey devotes her nights to brainy, high-tech attempts to subvert the government's planned closure.
That activity catches the eye of Athena (yes, that Athena), who arranges for one of those Tomorrowland pins to fall into Casey's hands because she believes Casey is a special person who can save the future from itself.
In one of the film's most magical effects, when Casey touches the pin she is immediately transported to gorgeous wheat fields (shot in Alberta, Canada) just outside Tomorrowland's glistening spires.
Because Tomorrowland feels like the happiest place on Earth (sound familiar?), filled with bright, creative people doing their best work, Casey wants to get back there as often as possible. But there wouldn't be any movie at all if that were an easy task.
First, for a variety of cumbersome reasons, she has to track down the adult Frank Walker. Then they both have to contend with some sinister goings-on, including pitched battles with robotic hitmen in black suits and sunglasses that seem to come from another movie.
Even saying that doesn't do justice to the exhausting convolutions of "Tomorrowland's" plot or the confusing nature of its ending, all of which undermine the film's effective moments. While it's good to see a summer movie that wants to do things differently as well as one that is resolutely and uncharacteristically optimistic about humanity's future, what "Tomorrowland" does most urgently is make us hope that Bird finds his way back to animation some time soon.
MPAA rating: PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language.
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
Playing: In general release