Tomorrowland: Up-and-down family film worth taking a chance on

Disappointing. Underwhelming. Lackluster.

Three words that easily describe how Disney executives this week feel about their latest feature film, the George Clooney-helmed “Tomorrowland.”

The film, well on its way to becoming a commercial failure due to its $180 million budget according to Variety, is generally believed to be a mistake, which is the best thing that could possibly happen to this family friendly sci-fi, action adventure film.

How would things be different today if “Tomorrowland” was raking in the dough at a rate Disney was comfortable with? We’d already be talking about “Tomorrowland 2” less than one week after the film’s initial release.

Disney’s last foray into original storytelling based off a part of their world-famous parks, 2003’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” was a critical and commercial hit and now three installments later, diminishing in quality with each iteration, filming has already begun on the all-but-unnecessary fifth film, “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” due for release in 2017.

Thankfully, “Tomorrowland” won’t be headed down the franchise path, despite an ending ripe with possibility for franchise expansion.

How Disney has approached the Brad Bird-directed “Tomorrowland” illustrates a growing problem with Hollywood — studios just don’t know how to package and promote large scale original films to audiences. Heading into the feature, based off trailers alone, viewers only knew three things about the film: touching a pin can make you see things that may or may not actually be there; George Clooney is an eccentric scientist, possibly mad; and there’s a clock slowly counting down to something. That’s it.

It’s difficult to get excited about a film like “Tomorrowland” in the way that viewers did about “Gravity” or “Interstellar” — films Disney is clearly trying to emulate stylistically — without the help of big name stars to draw from. Clooney, while popular with older audiences, isn’t well known by pre-teen and teenage audiences, the exact audiences the film is targeted for.

Britt Robertson, the real star of the film, isn’t enough of a draw to pull in audiences. In fact, hidden in a NASA hat for most of the movie, she’s nearly unrecognizable as the same girl fawning over Scott Eastwood in the Nicholas Sparks novel turned feature “The Longest Ride.” Disney, and to a large extent, Bird as director, had no idea what to do with this movie and it shows both on screen and at the box office.

To be sure, “Tomorrowland” is an incredibly flawed film from its opening sequence, where Clooney and Robertson verbally spar over who will narrate the introduction into the world of “Tomorrowland.” It’s exactly this sort of awkward duality that permeates the whole film from start to finish, never allowing the viewers to get fully engaged.

At its core, the script from Bird and co-writer Damon Lindehof is a watered down, light hearted riff on the Christopher Nolan-helmed space odyssey “Interstellar,” with the distinct touch of the Mickey Mouse corporation oozing all throughout the feature, which also reads as a lengthy advertisement for its Disneyland and Disneyworld theme park facilities.

Clooney does a solid performance in a role it feels like he realizes halfway through filming should have gone to someone else. His charm and gravitas, well served in a much darker feature like “Gravity,” feels slightly out of place in the world of “Tomorrowland,” but perfect for the dystopian real world portrayed in the film’s outset. It’s as if the film evolved beyond him or he beyond the film.

Robertson, on the other hand, is the perfect choice to play the young dreamer Casey, who uses her Disney-mandated altruism and pureness of spirit to become one of the best role models for young girls to come out in theaters over the last several years, despite a penchant early in the film for criminal destruction of property (but only for the right reasons).

At well over two hours, there’s no shortage of time on screen for Clooney and Robertson to develop fully-formed characters, but aside from a strong performance by Raffey Cassidy as the instigating android ambassador (aka robot), Athena, there’s no one else of consequence in the film.

There’s Hugh Laurie as a James Bond-esque villain who follows every single stereotypical bad guy trope mocked by the “Austin Powers” franchise; Tim McGraw as the inspirational father figure that viewers will only get five minutes with; the talented and much underutilized Judy Greer as the apparently deceased mother figure who only gets a brief expository mention early in the film and is then forgotten by screenwriters and Robertson’s Casey for the rest of the narrative.

The four hour director’s cut version of “Tomorrowland” — which may or may not actually exist and will definitely never see the light of day — is likely filled with all the key gaps in plot continuity and structure Bird’s finished product lacks.

While not perfect, “Tomorrowland” is an important film for audiences beyond its original plot wading in the world of franchises and endless sequels. Family friendly films — especially of the live action variety — are becoming fewer and farther apart as Hollywood continues to venture away from the G rating, pushing the envelope into PG and PG-13 in the quest for the almighty dollar.

While the same could be said of “Tomorrowland,” which artificially inflates its rating thanks to a couple of unnecessary and unfinished “son-of-a” lines and the occasional mild peril, the film on the whole is a light PG leaning on the edge of a G rating. More families, especially with children old enough to understand the complexities of some of the doomsday elements offered in the film, need to see “Tomorrowland.”

There’s a reason that this film hasn’t taken off like it should have. No one — not critics, not audiences, not even the studios and director — knows what to do with “Tomorrowland.”

Some portions of the film evoke “Race to Witch Mountain” or even “Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief,” but then large segments of the film veer into the social mechanics of world building reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s cinematic masterpieces “Inception” and “Interstellar.” In fact, “Tomorrowland” would be a terrific introductory film for young film fanatics to be introduced to the concepts and critical thinking required by audiences of Nolan’s work, a PG starter kit to wean youth onto one of Hollywood’s best directors.

The failure of “Tomorrowland” to be a benchmark commercial success will ultimately prove to be best for the film’s future. Bird takes ardent strides forward in visual storytelling within the family friendly genre, continuing a trend he started with 2004’s “The Incredibles.”

Audiences need to do exactly what the film ultimately asks of its leads — take a chance on a dreamer.

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