“Tomorrowland” both confuses and delights

In the 1964 World’s Fair, Walt Disney introduced the world to the classic attractions Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, It’s a Small World and Carousel of Progress. Visitors to Walt Disney World can still enjoy the classic Carousel of Progress attraction, the ultimate advertisement for technological optimism, which shows how technology has made American families’ lives easier over the decades.

The attraction is located, of course, in Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland, which now has a movie to go with it. Hearkening to the attitude of the concept of a literal “Tomorrowland” and to the wonder and optimism of the World’s Fair is Disney’s latest live-action flick “Tomorrowland,” directed by Brad Bird and starring George Clooney, Hugh Laurie and and the effusive Britt Robertson. Robertson stars as Casey, a bright teen who stumbles upon a pin that transports her to the ultimate future dreamworld Tomorrowland. Her desire to return starts her on a journey toward her destiny that includes teaming up with a grumpy Clooney, fleeing from advanced audio-animatronics and using cool technology we’ve only dreamed of.

As a director, Bird is known for helming larger-than-life stories based on fantastical concepts: a superhero family in “The Incredibles,” a rat who can cook in “Ratatouille,” a gentle war machine in “The Iron Giant,” and secret agents doing impossible stunts in “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.” In “Tomorrowland,” he goes big again by combining nostalgic optimism with modern action-adventure frolick to honor past visionaries and inspire us to dream big for the future.

The performances are solid, including Clooney’s cantankerous genius Frank and Laurie’s high-and-mighty scientist. But the standout is Robertson’s performance as bold, optimistic and rebellious-but-not-brooding Casey. Her performance fully delves into Casey’s optimism without going over the top with sunniness. She drives most of “Tomorrowland” with aplomb and holds her own on screen with the seasoned Laurie and Clooney.

When performances are good, it’s easier to enjoy the rest of a movie’s aspects. This is good news for “Tomorrowland” as it’s a fun visual spectacle. The special effects aren’t out of this world or mind-bending, but they feel fresh and shiny and do a great job of transporting you to a utopian fantasy. The cinematography is quite excellent and adds to the special effects treats. It’s great to see a movie take full advantage of dynamic camera angles. The action and fighting scenes are exciting, well-choreographed and paced just right, making the film a fun piece of escapism.

However, for all the fun, a confusing plot that doesn’t make the most of the two-hour running time prevents full enjoyment. The audience follows Casey on her journey to return to the place where the pin took her, taking her on a nearly fatal adventure to her destiny. However, more than an hour into the film, she still doesn’t know what’s going on and neither does the audience. Instead of keeping the suspense up, this becomes tiring, especially when other characters obviously know what’s going on but refuse to explain until later — much, much later. Similarly, the buildup to the not-so-big final surprise is so incredibly long that it’s almost annoying.

The other problem with the story is how it is ultimately confusing. Frank makes it clear that he knows Casey’s destiny, but that destiny is never fully fleshed out, and she never has a moment to embrace it and find herself and her purpose. Another problem is that, even though it’s clear the characters must work together to save the future, the film leaves us hanging. The sense of urgency is gone by the end of the movie, and there’s no indication it was there in the first place. And when it’s revealed that Tomorrowland failed and became a desolate wasteland, the movie never bothers to explain how this happened or why. It’s extremely frustrating.

But there is one shining star in this film: the message of hope and optimism. It’s an attitude that’s perfectly encapsulated in the catchy Carousel of Progress theme, which is included in the film: “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day / There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow and tomorrow’s just a dream away.” With everything from natural disasters and seemingly incurable diseases, our future looks pretty grim, but “Tomorrowland” advocates for dreamers and encourages everyone to make it a real place. And though the message does come off as a little contrived at the end, it’s light-hearted and hopeful, and it’s exactly what we need in a time when being cynical is the easiest thing to do.

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