Tomorrowland


George Clooney has a chat with Brett Robertson over her TV viewing habits.

George Clooney has a chat with Brett Robertson over her TV viewing habits.

(2015) Science Fiction (Disney) George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Bauer, Thomas Robinson, Pierce Gagnon, Matthew MacCaull, Judy Greer, Matthew Kevin Anderson, Michael Giacchino, D. Harlan Cutshall, Shiloh Nelson, Xantha Radley, David Nykl, Priya Rajratham. Directed by Brad Bird

The future is a subject that fascinates most of us. How we view the future tends to be a reflection of how we view the present; in the optimistic days of the early and mid-60s, the epoch of the New York World’s Fair, there was optimism. Things would get better and our ingenuity would get us there. The future was full of sleek buildings, mass transit via monorail, wondrous scientific advances, cities on the moon, flying cars, jetpacks and cheerful, smiling people without a care in the world. In short, a theme park.

These days the way we view the future is dark and hopeless. Inevitably in our view of the future civilization has collapsed, resources have been depleted and humanity is on the verge of extinction. There are no gleaming cities, no jetpacks, no cheerful, smiling people; just dirty, destitute denizens of a hardscrabble world desperate to survive in a world where survival on any given day is no picnic. Welcome to the 21st century, no?

In Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, yet another Disney film based on a theme park attraction – or, in this case, an entire themed zone within a theme park – there is a return to that bright shiny future but in this particular case, the future isn’t all that it used to be.

Meet Frank Walker (Robinson). He’s a brilliant kid living out in the sticks who dreams of jetpacks and shiny cities and heads over to the 1964 World’s Fair with stars in his eyes and a (nearly) working jetpack under his arm for a competition for inventors. His invention is rejected but a little girl named Athena (Cassidy) gives Walker a pin and tells him to follow her and her group. Walker follows them onto the It’s a Small World ride via which he is transported to an alternate dimension, one in which the future is now. He has arrived in Tomorrowland, a place where humanity’s most creative minds, most artistic souls and most brilliant scientists have gathered to create a Utopia. In short, not unlike the SyFy Channel’s Eureka.

Flash forward 50 years and over to Central Florida where Eddie Newton (McGraw), a NASA engineer, is given charge of dismantling the launch site for the Space Shuttle after which he’ll be out of a job. His spunky daughter Casey (Robertson), who has a brilliant intuitive mind and is able to figure out almost instantly “how things work,” has been repeatedly sabotaging his efforts. One of her attempts at sabotage gets her caught and lands her in jail. When she goes to collect her things, there’s a strange pin among them – one she didn’t have before. Whenever she touches it, she is transported to Tomorrowland, although it is more of an immersive hologram of Tomorrowland. And there’s a time limit on the pin’s battery, after which it  ceases working.

Casey is obsessed with finding Tomorrowland and her search takes her to the doorstep of Frank Walker (Clooney), now a grizzled old hermit whose house looks dilapidated yet is taking in more electrical current than Walt Disney World. It turns out that Frank was exiled from Tomorrowland, and that he harbors a terrifying secret; while in Tomorrowland he built a machine able to look into the future and to his horror, it showed that the end of the human race was approaching. And it appears that Casey may hold the key to stopping it, but they have to get to Tomorrowland to do it. And there are some killer robots who are dead set on making sure that doesn’t happen.

Bird has created a marvelous universe that is brilliant to watch. Sure, it’s a bit of a retro vision but he has managed to make it visually stunning, an extension of the future worlds we saw 50 years ago (that are supposed to be now) but modernizing them somewhat. Tomorrowland thus becomes believable, at least to 2015 eyes.

In a movie in which ideas and dreams are extolled, Bird has several of his own and they bear thinking about. For example, he posits that because we’re conditioned to think that the future is bleak and awful, that we are making it come to pass. It’s a concept not without merit. The news about our present is unrelentingly bleak, when you consider climate change, income inequality, peak oil, religious fanaticism, water and food shortages, overpopulation and all the other issues that are affecting our survival. Hollywood also tends to make big budget sci-fi movies about futures in which mankind is not prospering. Post-apocalyptic wastelands are easier and cheaper to create than futuristic utopias, after all.

The constant Disney references in the movie are probably delightful to most Disneyphiles, from visions of Space Mountain on the edge of the frame during a visit to Tomorrowland, to the It’s a Small World ride in 1964 – which was actually filmed at the attraction in Anaheim, which is much longer than the original which was in the Pepsi Pavilion and not its own stand-alone facility. However, I’m betting those of you who have ridden the attraction are now cursing me because they know they won’t be able to get the song out of their heads for hours. In any case, there are references to Disney movies, Disney theme parks and Disney memorabilia throughout the movie and while most of it is subtle, some of it is blatant enough that it makes one feel like one is experience a 2 1/2 hour advertisement for Disney. But that isn’t the movie’s deadliest sin.

What I object to most about Tomorrowland is that the filmmakers have dumbed it down to appeal to a younger audience. Gigantic leaps in logic and common sense abound here as we get to watch a kid save the world. I don’t object intrinsically to having a kid be smart, but smarter than everyone else? Wisdom comes with experience; it isn’t something we are born with, something movies aimed at kids conveniently tend to overlook in order to stroke the fantasies of kids in that they’re smarter than the adults around them, and more able. While thankfully most of the adults in the film aren’t portrayed as buffoons as they often are in kid-oriented films, not one of them seems to have any sort of optimism within them whatsoever which defies the odds. I think making this too kid-oriented was a tremendous error. Look at the facts; on those Disney attraction-based films that have been completely kid-oriented (i.e. The Haunted Mansion, Country Bears) the box office has been anemic. On those that have aimed to be entertaining to all audiences (i.e. the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise) the box office was through the roof. Not all of it was Johnny Depp, mateys; a lot of it had to do with that most adults won’t watch Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network or the Disney Channel for very long.

Clooney puts aside his suave sex symbol image and plays an unshaven, pessimistic sort who out-Get Off My Lawns Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. He doesn’t flash his trademark grin very often in the movie, but remains engaging and charismatic nonetheless. I can’t say the same for Robertson however. I get that her character is supposed to be optimistic to the point of mania but she comes off as cloying instead. Worse, she seems to be overacting throughout, using broad gestures and expressions where subtlety would have been more appreciated. The 24-year-old Robertson is playing a young girl in her mid-teens and I get that girls that age are generally more dramatically inclined and that playing it over-the-top is more realistic than subtlety but it takes me out of the movie as I am continually reminded that someone is acting here.

This will probably rank as one of the summer’s greater disappointments. I had high hopes for it and was hoping that perhaps a new franchise might be brewing. The movie is doing pretty well at the box office but given its monster budget will have a hard time recouping all of it at the rate it is going.. I think if Bird had taken a page from Gore Verbinski’s book and appealed less to the youngest moviegoing audience and more to a more mature audience, this could have been a huge hit; it does have some admirable ideas to think about and is visually impressive but at the end of the day the things in the film that are annoying trump the things in the movie that are worthwhile. A world of tears, indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Nifty eye candy (not Clooney). Some fairly complex themes.
REASONS TO STAY: Dumbed down. Robertson overacts.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly bad language, sci-fi violence (robots beating each other up) and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Casey confronts the holographic dog early on in the film, her footprints form a Hidden Mickey.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mom and Dad Save the World
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Top Spin

The Muppets


The Muppets

Walter, Amy Adams and Jason Segel have stars in their eyes.

(2011) Family (Disney) Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones, Jack Black, Zach Galifianakis, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Walter, Fozzy Bear, Gonzo, The Swedish Chef, Alan Arkin, Mickey Rooney, Whoopie Goldberg, Jim Parsons. Directed by James Bobin

 

Cultural icons carry their own baggage with them. Because they fill a niche in our society, we associate them with particular characteristics – be it the fanboy nerdiness of Star Wars or the catty kitsch of RuPaul. The Muppets, however, are an entirely different story.

In the ’80s and into the ’90s the Muppets were electronic babysitters to the country. Kids of that era (Da Queen among them) were glued to the set. Parents of kids growing up during that era also got to know the lovable felt and fur creations and were amazed to discover that the scripts weren’t necessarily dumbed down and made so kid-centric that parents couldn’t enjoy them. Everybody could and that was the secret to their success.

Times changed and tastes changed. Disney bought the rights to the characters and up until now have mostly used them in their theme parks (which surprisingly isn’t referenced in the movie – I would have thought it a perfect opportunity for the Mouse to pimp their parks a bit). However, Segel – a huge fan of the series – pitched a movie to Disney that would possibly resurrect the franchise and the execs there agreed – the time was ripe for a return of the Muppets.

It is fitting that Mickey Rooney turns up in a cameo during the opening musical number; there is a “let’s put on a show” vibe here that Rooney was famous for in his classic films with Judy Garland.  The plot here is fiendishly simple; Tex Richman (Cooper), a nefarious oil baron, has purchased the old Muppet Theater for the purpose of drilling for oil deposits located beneath it. Gary (Segel), and his brother Walter (voiced by Steve Linz) stumble upon the plot while vacationing in Los Angeles with Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Adams) and touring the dilapidated Muppets studio. Walter, you see, is a Muppet-wannabe, a huge fan of the show who yearns to be a Muppet himself, even though he is a Muppet – it’s all so confusing in text but trust me, it makes sense when your butt is in the seat.

The Muppets have scattered to the four winds; Fozzy is in Reno playing in a rundown casino in a tribute act called the Moopets. Miss Piggy is in Paris as the plus-size editor of Vogue. Gonzo is a plumbing magnate and Animal is in Santa Barbara taking self-control classes with Jack Black. Kermit, the glue who always held the gang together, is living quietly in Los Angeles in the house he built for him and Piggy whose relationship has since fallen apart.

They have to raise $10 million (I can almost hear Dr. Evil intoning “ten millllllllllllion dollars” while putting pinky to lip) in order to save the theater. They decide a telethon is in order; trouble is, no network will put it on since the Muppets are no longer the stars they once were. They have gone the way of Fran Drescher, Emmanuel Lewis and ALF.

There are tons of celebrity cameos (a kind of Muppet tradition) and clever musical numbers, as well as a few gentle pop culture spoofs. Segel is properly reverent towards the Muppets (he co-wrote the script) but throws in enough “we’re has-been” references for it to start to get old. Believe me, we get it.

The movie is charming and has enough in-jokes to both the series and the movies that followed to keep rabid fans of the show, who are now in their 30s and 40s like cats in a cream factory. Those too young or too old to have been grabbed by the Muppets may find some references zinging over their heads (as I did – I’m definitely in the “too old” category) but Kermit, Piggy and company are all such major cultural figures from that era that it isn’t hard to pick up on most of the cultural references. In other words, you don’t have to be a fan to love the show.

As for the more modern kids, of course they’re going to love them. Some might grouse that Elmo doesn’t show up (the producers wanted him to, but Elmo still belongs to Sesame Street and even though the Muppets and the Sesame Street characters are related they are still legally separate) but for the most part, they’ll be satisfied with the wacky kid-friendly characters of the show that are still around. I found myself charmed by the movie and I wasn’t even the target audience.

While the late Jim Henson only appears in a couple of photographs in Kermit’s office and elsewhere, he would have approved I think (although former Muppet performer Frank Oz grumbled publically about fart jokes – I don’t recall seeing any but admittedly I might have overlooked it). I think I can safely say that this is a worthy addition to the Muppet legacy.

REASONS TO GO: There are a ton of “Muppet Show” in-jokes. Heartwarming, charming and generally goofy.

REASONS TO STAY: If you have an issue with Muppets, this isn’t going to improve your perception of them.

FAMILY VALUES: While the parental advisories warn against mild rude humor, in truth there is nothing here I would hesitate to expose a small child to.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emily Blunt plays Miss Piggy’s receptionist/assistant at Vogue in Paris; she played a very similar role in The Devil Wears Prada.

HOME OR THEATER: Kids will want to see this on the big screen and you will too.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Descendants