Brad Bird’s Disney-produced sci-fi adventure Tomorrowland is the most enchanting reactionary cultural diatribe ever made. It’s so smart, so winsome, so utterly rejuvenating that you’ll have to wait until your eyes have dried and your buzz has worn off before you can begin to argue with it. And you should argue with it — even if you had a blast, as I did, and want to see it again with the kids, as I do — because it’s a major pop-culture statement with all sorts of implications, both vital and nutty.
As he has demonstrated in The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, Bird can tell stories with the lightheartedness of a child and the cunning of a master craftsman: His tightly plotted movies feel as if he were making them up as he went along. To reveal too much of Tomorrowland’s zigzag narrative would be criminal — the fun comes from being constantly disoriented — but the first few scenes can be safely recounted. After a perplexing, vaguely futuristic prologue in which George Clooney as Frank Walker addresses an offscreen audience while being corrected/heckled by an offscreen girl, Bird flashes back to the New York World’s Fair of 1964, where Frank’s nerdy younger self (Thomas Robinson) presents his ingenious but failed stab at designing a jet pack to a Brit scientist (Hugh Laurie) who belittles him. A little British girl with a darling overbite who calls herself Athena (Raffey Cassidy) and appears to be the scientist’s daughter hands Frank a World’s Fair pin that transports him … somewhere incredible! Then there’s another flashback, closer to the present day. Florida teen Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) decides to sabotage a site in which NASA rockets are dismantled, casualties of a country that has abandoned its dream of space flight. Jailed for her passionate vandalism, Casey discovers among her belongings a ’64 World’s Fair pin that every time she touches it transports her … somewhere incredible!
For all the mystery, it’s obvious at once why both Casey and Frank qualify for that pin: They have unfettered imaginations that authority figures keep trying to fetter. They are meant for higher things. A sign with a quote from Albert Einstein spells out Bird’s manifesto: IMAGINATION IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN KNOWLEDGE. He and composer Michael Giacchino lovingly conjure up the kid-movie era of high-school science fairs and friendly giant robots, before HAL, before the Terminator, before Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates (among others) predicted AIs will one day be the end of us. Tomorrowland whisks us back to when kids could (or at least thought they could) make rockets in their suburban garages out of old vacuum-cleaner parts, when a “city of the future” with the antiseptic bonhomie of Disney World could inspire awe instead of bad laughs and a desire to write WALT IS A PENIS on the side of a too-clean wall. In Casey’s era, by contrast, high-school teachers drone on about climate catastrophe and gaze on her with contempt when she interrupts to ask, “Can we fix it?” In Todayland, positivity makes you radioactive.
It emerges that Bird, in Tomorrowland, is mounting nothing less than a full-throated assault on the nihilism, dystopianism, and what might be called the fetishization of apocalypse in today’s movies, TV shows, and books — especially YA books that worm their way into the fantasies of impressionable kids. This is not, you understand, the movie’s subtext. It’s the Über-Über-text. It’s the message that’s articulated in multiple ways, as boldly as that Einstein sign, by characters bad and good, and it’s implicit in the riddle posed by Casey’s NASA dad that becomes the cornerstone of his daughter’s worldview: You have two wolves, one representing darkness and despair, the other light and hope. Which one lives? Says Casey: “The one you feed.”
My response to Bird’s anti-dystopianism is “Cool.” Because, really, how many more plague–flood–road warrior–kids-killing-kids movies do we need? It is time to feed that other wolf, if only for the sake of variety. And maybe we’ve learned too well since the days of Dr. Strangelove — which came out the same year as the New York World’s Fair — to “stop worrying and love the bomb.”
The trouble comes when Bird gets carried away with his critique of all things critical. In Tomorrowland, he suggests that it’s the people sounding the alarm — the ones constantly reminding us about climate change or the dangers of nuclear power — who are accelerating our demise, their pessimism wreaking havoc on imaginations that would otherwise be busy inventing solutions. I suspect that’s Bird’s Ayn Rand side showing its warty head, spinning another tale of extraordinary individuals kept from manifesting their creativity by repressive liberal groupthink. If Bird really believes we should shift the blame from a fossil-fuel industry bankrolling anti-science propaganda embraced by greedheads and fundamentalist wackjobs to the 98 percent of the world’s scientists saying, “If we don’t act now, and we mean now, we’re royally screwed,” he’s living in his own private Disneyland.
Did I mention how delightful the movie is apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln? It moves lightly from scene to scene, its follow-the-bouncing-ball ease a reminder that Bird has always straddled two worlds, his animation grounded by love of classic cinema, his live-action films liberated by an animator’s sense of possibilities. As a bitter exile from the world of his dreams, Clooney mugs more than he acts, but his comic timing remains superb and he plainly adores his young female co-stars, who are plainly adorable. Robertson is goosey and high-strung, her reactive style pairing beautifully with Cassidy’s crisp, poised underplaying as the enigmatic Athena. A Brit who looks like a young, freckled Felicity Jones, Cassidy is the movie’s breakout star, and wouldn’t it be a grim irony if she ends up starring in the next dystopian YA “franchise”? What else does Hollywood do with kids these days besides pulp them?
*This article appears in the May 18, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.