A bit of blue-sky thinking opens up a whole new world for a bright young girl and a bitter old inventor in this hugely ambitious, totally beguiling, mind-bending trip. Science and philosophy converge in a story that doesn’t just entertain – though it does that, brilliantly – but is also designed to get kids thinking about their ownership of the future. Far from patronising younger viewers, it asks them to take charge.
George Clooney is the one-time whizz-kid Frank (played by Thomas Robinson in scenes from the mid-1960s), who turns his back on the future after seeing and experiencing it. However, his recollections of a gleaming, jewel-like, Jetsons-style metropolis known as Tomorrowland may be an illusion. That is the mystery that teenage science geek Casey (Britt Robertson) aims to solve after having a similar experience and encountering an intense little girl called Athena (the bright-eyed, comically deadpan Raffey Cassidy), who claims that she can take her back there.
Brad Bird, the writer/director behind The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, has a knack for taking big ideas and bouncing them around with cheerful abandon, and he makes the most of it here, dropping hints about the nature of Tomorrowland and the environmental concerns of today that have given rise to it. Later, he delves deeper to address the reality that starts with just a single thought and becomes a collective consciousness.
Even with all this going on, there’s little time for navel-gazing between hairpin bends on a fun, futuristic rollercoaster ride where Casey and Frank get to test out all sorts of retro-cool gadgets, including ray guns, jet packs and a rocket ship that launches spectacularly from the Eiffel Tower.
There’s an air of menace, too, with anthropomorphic robots hot in pursuit, made all the more unnerving by being programmed to grin as they kill. Of course, there is no blood – this is a Disney film after all – and Bird embraces the wholesome family values espoused by Uncle Walt, as well as his vision of the future (composed, apparently, of exhibits from the 1964 World’s Fair). Mercifully, Bird also has a wry sense of humour to go along with the wide-eyed wonder and avoids sentimentality.
Pitched somewhere between the goodies and baddies is Hugh Laurie, who is evidently a pillar of the Tomorrowland community, holding his nose in the air in a manner unrivalled by other Englishmen. His purpose is revealed in a slightly hurried, all-action finale where, inevitably, the future of the world as we know it hangs by a thread. This is where the balance of the film tips just a little, though, with Laurie having to sum up what we’ve learned so far and Casey struck by a eureka moment to “fix the world”.
Scenes of mass destruction add visceral impact, but it’s the ideas behind the stunts and the slick visual effects that give the film its epic sweep. This is a true voyage of discovery, meticulously crafted with noble intent and heartfelt conviction, without being self-important or slushy – the antidote to countless other dystopian thrillers.
Casey embodies a spirit of optimism without being too chirpy and Frank is all rough edges that are only slightly softened by the end. His attachment to Athena, which might have been clumsily handled, also adds poignancy to the uplifting conclusion. When all is said and done, this movie may not change the world, but it demands courage from those who might have the necessary spark to do so. That, in itself, is a great endeavour.
Tomorrowland: a World Beyond is released on Friday 22 May