Former animation wizard Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) delivers his second live-action film, after Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, with mixed results. Tomorrowland certainly has lots going for it, including a wholly original plot line, terrific visuals and surprisingly good performances from its young actors. It's a fast-moving film that jumps right into its tale of some differences between youngsters and adults, and of how optimism can turn to pessimism, then takes off on a voyage that crosses time, space and dimensions. But in putting together this escapade in science fiction and fantasy, Bird lets things get too convoluted, and toward the end the script seems to be rushing to answer too many questions with too many explanations.
Let me explain: The film opens with Frank Walker (George Clooney) announcing, right into the camera, "This is a story about the future," and being interrupted by the off-screen voice of a young girl. "When I was a kid," he continues... but we don't hear about it, we see it, as the film flashes back to the 1964 New York World's Fair, where young Frank (Thomas Robinson) is entering his self-designed jet pack. He and his invention don't interest Nix (Hugh Laurie), the man in charge, but do catch the eye of young Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who initially appears to be Nix's daughter, but is someone — something — quite different. When she slips Frank a lapel pin with a big "T" on it, he unwittingly embarks upon an adventure that will change him forever.
Back in the present, we meet smart, stubborn, feisty Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), who's upset that her NASA engineer dad will soon be out of work because with new budgets, "there's nothing to launch." She, too, is soon slipped one of those pins; she, too, sets out on an adventure.
Both of these kids go somewhere and see something that boggles their minds: a sleek, shiny city of the future. At least they go and see it when they're touching that pin, and when they let go, they're home again. That back-and-forth provides some of the film's funnier moments. But Tomorrowland also ventures to some wild and dark places and moods. There are others, and they're not exactly human, who want those pins, and they evaporate anyone who gets in their way, signaling that this is going to be a film with a steady supply of bloodless violence.
Casey, determined to find out what's going on, tracks down and eventually meets the now-adult Frank, once wide-eyed and cheerful, now reduced to a bitter man whose dreams have been dashed. All of that changes when Athena, still a little girl (or something), suddenly appears at Casey's side, and reappears, all these years later, at Frank's side.
Bird's film carries themes of being hopeful about the future and never giving up, even when our protagonists manage to return to that other (future?) world, and find that things have gone terribly wrong. But it's wrapped up with an exciting, action-packed, somewhat confusing climax — the part where all of that explanation comes roaring through — in which young and old, optimist and pessimist, come together and figure out a way to save, well, everything. ♦