In a junk-food summer, Brad Bird's Tomorrowland is a defiant carrot stick, a blockbuster adventure flick where the message is "Think smart." It's a deliberate phooey to the kiddie carnage of movies like Transformers and The Avengers, which frighten children about the apocalypse before they can even spell the word — a running joke in Tomorrowland's background is a fake movie poster flogging grim dreck called ToxiCosmos 3.
Bird and cowriter Damon Lindelof have nearly offed the planet a few times themselves in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (nuclear missiles), World War Z (zombie contagion), and TV's The Leftovers (biblical rapture). But hey, doom sells. And Tomorrowland wants us to question what we're buying. Yesterday's doomsayers were bearded lunatics holding placards — today, we call them news anchors. It's hard to rally to fix the planet when we've been cowed into hopelessness by an insurmountable number of threats: war, drought, ISIS, famine, global warming, peak oil, Ebola, economic unrest. Have we become so numb to future destruction that our cynicism is letting it happen?
This is complex stuff for a kids' romp, and Bird can't figure out how to get started. Tomorrowland opens with George Clooney, playing pessimistic inventor Frank Walker, addressing the audience. "This is a story about the future, and the future can be scary," he cautions. From behind the camera, a girl interrupts and asks him to be more upbeat. He can't, and after minutes of their tiresome bickering, our movie begins anew from her more positive point of view. She is revealed as high school science whiz Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), the daughter of a NASA engineer (country singer Tim McGraw) whose latest job is dismantling the shuttle launch platform — the kind of irony designed to inspire children to crayon heartbroken letters to their congressman.
Casey is a dreamer. She's also one of the best female role models to hit screens this year, a stubborn brainiac who races around in two hoodies and a baseball cap. (She's got more important things to think about than boys or her hair, though the latter considerately coils itself into glamorous loose curls.) However, she's outbadassed in her own movie by the pint-sized Athena (Raffey Cassidy), an android ambassador who slips the human a pin that transplants Casey — temporarily — to a resort called Tomorrowland, the technological refuge where Athena was forged. Athena is a freckled action hero molded to look like a 13-year-old girl, and she's marvelously constructed: impatient, deceptive, disobedient, brave, and brilliant (though, as she stresses, she can't invent ideas, only execute them).
At the New York World's Fair in 1964 — where Walt Disney debuted It's a Small World before transplanting it and its earworm theme song to Anaheim — Athena gave young Frank (Thomas Robinson) the same pin and eventually, as he claims, destroyed his life. Today, he's a crackpot hermit in a booby-trapped house counting down to Armageddon, the probability of which he's calculated as 100 percent. Clooney cranks his charisma way down so there's no question of romance between him and Robertson's teen heroine. (In real life, the 25-year-old actress isn't that much younger than some of his past girlfriends.) He's more get-off-my-lawn grandpa than silver-fox charmer. For the first time, we get a glimpse of the actor he'll become, a patrician whose new 7-year-old fans will grow up, discover Ocean's Eleven, and be astonished that the old guy was once a total babe.
But back to the movie's vision of the future. Bird's Tomorrowland is a literal oasis of ingenuity, a shiny skyscraper metropolis surrounded by endless wheat fields as though science has figured out how to heal gluten intolerance. Its residents zoom around wearing jetpacks and protective airbag suits, and when they slip those off, everyone tends to wear bright yellow. This, Bird says, is the future we imagined in the past — call it Aspirational Jetsons. If we strived for this dream instead of accepting the apocalypse, is there still time to build it ourselves?
The odd thing is, I suspect an inspirational movie like Tomorrowland will turn off audiences who just want to see a time-waster that doesn't shame them for throwing recyclables in the trash. That's a pity. Bird layers on plenty of dazzle, like a nifty shot where the Eiffel Tower splits in two, revealing an antique spaceship that would make the Lumière brothers swoon. But his heart is what keeps the story motoring, and the ending is perfectly engineered, including a coda that encourages all of us to try harder. Bird has made a film that every child should see. And if his $190 million dream flops, he'll be asking the same question as his movie: When did it become uncool to care?