Sean Wilson re-evaluates the unfairly maligned Disney movie, and why its failure is an unfortunate reflection of the modern-day cinema industry…
Just under a year ago, I appeared to be one of approximately five people on the planet who was more than a little dismayed and disheartened at the critical roasting afforded to Disney epic Tomorrowland. Subtitled A World Beyond in the UK and other territories, the movie is directed by The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Mission: Impossible and Ratatouille supremo Brad Bird, being the story of young girl Casey (Britt Robertson) who stumbles across the existence of a wondrous land existing beyond known time and space.
Tracking down mysterious, grumpy and reclusive former boy genius Frank Walker (George Clooney), Casey discovers that Tomorrowland was actually the creation of the world’s greatest scientific minds, an embodiment of everything than an optimistic future can offer. However, it’s under imminent threat of collapse, prompting an interstellar adventure to save Tomorrowland and thereby giving humanity something to aspire towards in a troubled era of climate change and rampant disaster.
Based on the themed Disneyworld landscape, it’s easy to sneer at Tomorrowland (let’s not forget, the increasingly cynical Pirates of the Caribbean franchise continues to milk that particular connection dry). However under Bird’s astute direction it’s a pacy, funny and, most importantly, optimistic adventure that isn’t afraid of looking to the future with wide-eyed wonder.
Yes, it’s very flawed and far from brilliant – the typically incoherent script co-written by Prometheus scribe Damon Lindelof does the usual thing of setting up too many questions before rushing to answer all of them, not especially effectively, in an exposition-laden final third. But for the most part, it’s fun, unashamedly so, asking vital questions about what we can do to safeguard our own future in a resolutely earnest, upbeat fashion, quite the refreshing change of pace in an era when many blockbusters are adamant at painting in shades of grey. With its retro-future look (all gleaming, chrome spires) and joyously rambunctious score from Michael Giacchino, it feels like a throwback to a more innocent era, owing more to 1991’s The Rocketeer (another unfair bomb) than, say, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
This is surely one of the reasons why the movie failed to capture an audience: ironically enough, like its central characters, it was a film out of time and out of step with modern trends. With a paltry 50% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a disastrous $209m global gross against a hefty $190m budget (figures from Box Office Mojo), it was a colossal write-off for Disney, destined to be remembered as one of their expensive, misfiring footnotes. Of course, a movie failing due to its optimistic nature is disappointing enough: movies that wear their heart on their sleeve nowadays are often written off as cheesy compared to darker works that set out to explore the darkness of the human condition.
However, the movie’s failure can also surely be put down to the fact that it wasn’t tethered to a franchise (although had it been successful, one may have been in the offing) – and this is surely more disquieting. Nowadays, we’re all accustomed to the notion of shared universes: Marvel have been expanding their superhero movie slate ever since the first Iron Man back in 2008 (although it’s important to remember that movie was an enormous gamble at the time with the risky casting of Robert Downey Jr.), and DC are now also jumping on the bandwagon to more mixed fortunes.
Not that I’m complaining: I think Marvel are doing genuinely awe-inspiring work and that this period of superhero epics is destined to be remembered as a golden age for popcorn entertainment. Nevertheless, with a saturation of tentpole releases in today’s market, not to mention the ferocious competition from streaming and home network services, ensuring an audience’s staying power by constantly looking ahead is vital. As an example, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is now continually laying the groundwork for the next superhero story within each new movie they release; Captain America: Civil War not only establishes the seeds of the eventual Avengers: Infinity War but also alludes to two separate origin stories for the new Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), arriving in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
Tomorrowland didn’t play this game, arriving in isolation as a relatively untested studio property (albeit one based on a popular Disney attraction) that was surely meant to be consumed as an enjoyable stand alone experience. Yet audiences and critics didn’t want this: the reaction seemed to be, what’s the point of dramatically investing in a blockbuster if said investment doesn’t look like it’s going to pay off in future installments? A big budget movie operating on its own steam outside the established rules of franchise building is now a big risk, although not an insurmountable one: few could have predicted that Jon Favreau’s recent The Jungle Book would have turned out as well as it did, given the formidable legacy of the 1967 animation appeared to doom it as an irrelevant exercise from the off. Yet the movie’s enormous popularity, both critical and financial, immediately resulted in a sequel being greenlit.
Maybe I’m getting too defensive about Tomorrowland, a movie that could be said to have tanked because of its not inconsiderable problems that a savvy audience were all-too-quick to recognise. I’m willing to admit that, but I think Tomorrowland’s failure remains an upsetting one indicating a mass audience’s reluctance to get behind a stand alone story. When I think back to the movies with which I grew up – The Goonies, The NeverEnding Story, the Indiana Jones series et al – very few of them were concerned with laying out a shared universe; even if they spawned sequels (and many of them did), each movie was designed to be consumed entirely on its own terms.
So what does this say about contemporary culture? It’s surely harder to sustain a jaded audience’s interest now than it was back in the 1980s, especially when the likes of Game of Thrones deliver awesomely cinematic qualities directly into our homes. Is it simply the case that cinema now has to absorb the principles of a long-running TV series, continually building towards the next installment and thereby justifying the increasingly hefty prices we’re compelled to fork out? If so this is very bad news for the likes of Tomorrowland, movies that want to give us a great time whilst remaining devoid of franchise baggage. With regards to such films, it seems the past is indeed brighter than the future.
Sean Wilson is a film reviewer, soundtrack enthusiast and avid tea drinker. If all three can be combined at the same time, all is good with the world.
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