When approximately 22 minutes had passed, the critics checked out. The first trailer for the film, which screamed with unwarranted mediocrity, instantly brewed a batch of immense apathy in the moviegoers’ heads. The marketing was dreadful, so the critics were eagerly awaiting the chance to convict the movie of being dreadful as well. They got their chance about 22 minutes in, when the film reaches the pinnacle of preachy. All of the teachers tell the high school students that doom is inevitable – the end is near – and while our optimistic protagonist raises her hand to argue, they all choose to ignore her. When she finally is given the chance to speak, she asks the obvious question, “Can we fix it?” The teacher is stumped by the question, because apparently everyone in this movie lives in a world where no one has bothered to ask what we can do to make the world better.
But that’s not where the story really starts. Let’s start earlier, at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Yes, the film starts there, at what was perhaps the biggest display of optimism about the future in history. The movie starts (as more Disney films should) by getting us excited about the movie we’re starting to watch, and giving us a dose of nostalgia while playing great Sherman Brothers music is a really good way to do that. This is where audio-animatronics were revealed to the public, most notably in the attraction “It’s a Small World,” which is where audio-animatronic children can transport people to another dimension. … No, really, that’s the ride’s purpose according to this movie. It takes them to a dimension where cliché visions of the future are re-hashed with gray CGI, creating a world of half-hearted semi-wonder, with a side of Diet Whimsy. However, when viewed through the eyes of the child we’re following, Frank, there is some wonder to be found in it. Fortunately, there are a few clever details and touches that seem rather original – especially the magic floating swimming pools – which make the clichés far more bearable than one would expect from just watching the trailer.
This, however, is not the focus of the film. The focus of the film is Hugh Laurie’s speech at the end. The entirety of the film builds up to the moment when he finally explains what has been going on this whole time. Essentially, visions of what will happen at the end of the world have been subtly broadcast directly into the minds of the people of earth. This should obviously be a wake-up call to get to work on fixing the problem, but instead, humans acted like humans. They ate it up, they yelled and fussed and complained about it, they preached that the end was near, and in the end, it became an excuse. It became an excuse to act like they cared about what was important, while in reality they used what could have been a great chance to do some good as a chance to be lazy.
The cleverness of the film is that the whole movie builds up to the unveiling of a self-fulfilling prophecy machine (arguably a sci-fi equivalent to American cable news), and ultimately humankind is more to blame for the end of the world than any villain. The problem with the film is in the delivery of this great concept. The use of real people, places, and events creates the sense that Tomorrowland is trying to depict the real world somewhat accurately. This becomes a problem nine minutes in when “It’s a Small World” has a secret built-in tunnel to another dimension, at which point the suspension of disbelief is gone since not even Disney could pull of such a feat in the 1960s. However, this part of the movie was not absurdist enough to effectively communicate to the audience the message they needed to hear: “THIS IS NOT YOUR WORLD; it’s a silly caricature of it.”
But Disney wouldn’t be brave enough to say that, would they? Naturally, they think they must make the audience believe that it is the world we’re living in so that we’re shocked. Disney seems to think we won’t be invested in the film if what’s on screen is too surrealistic. Therein lies the irony – the movie itself becomes the machine it antagonizes by saying, “This is reality and it stinks,” rather than saying, “This could be reality.” (As if that isn’t bad enough, it commits an even worse crime by saying that our reality includes certain special people who inevitably improve the world. So if I, the viewer, don’t think I’m one of those people, why would I feel motivated to make the world a better place?) This could have been avoided had the film been an absurdist comedy, creating a world with obviously stupid caricatures of mankind, which takes away the preachy tone, while simultaneously allowing the filmmakers to scream to the world, “DON’T YOU DARE LET YOUR WORLD BE ANYTHING LIKE THIS LUDICROUS ONE.”
To be fair, there are other interesting elements of the film to discuss as well, such as the clever concept of a society where all the world’s geniuses got together in another dimension. In terms of characters, I find it hard to believe that the lead actress is a genius, but I suppose she at least does a decent job at making the character likable. Frank’s a pretty good character on the whole, and Hugh Laurie does a nice job with his part too, but none of them are as charming or impressive as Raffey Cassidy, who plays the little girl named “Athena.” She’s kind of amazing, and I really like this character, but I spent half the movie waiting for the writers to kill her off since I could tell they’d do it eventually. Her death was probably the most predictable part of the story though, as most of the film kept me wondering what was going to happen next. The movie surprisingly handles exposition well using the old trick of making the audience want answers, and then providing them, rather than explaining to the audience what we haven’t asked to have explained. Still, part of why the story took interesting and surprising turns that kept me wanting answers is the lack of any logic in the story whatsoever. I was constantly finding things that the robotic characters, being computers at heart, should have handled much more logically, so I felt more like I was watching a to-be-CinemaSins than a Disney classic – another issue that could have been dodged with a tongue-in-cheek approach.
Still, at the heart of the film is its message, and while the message seems straightforward, I don’t think the critics and I agree on what the message is. The message I choose to take from the film is that I need to get off my butt, roll up my sleeves, and get to work on making the world a better place, but I suspect that that resonated with me since I’ve already felt that way for so long. For the average viewer, I fear that this may not have been received the same way. There is always a danger in an optimistic message as such messages tend to ignore reality and substitute it with the way they’d like to see the world. This movie is, to some degree, guilty of ignoring reality, which does bother me. It does, however, use clever ideas, a fun story, and interesting characters to give the world the slap in the face it needs and say, “You have no excuse now – go get to work and make the world better.”