'Tomorrowland': In the future, past is prologue, maybe

Marty McFly. Dorothy Gale. Casey Newton.

 Casey Newton? 

Although Tomorrowland's ambitions are right up there with Back to the Future and The Wizard of Oz, the plucky Floridian played by Britt Robertson in the time-hopping Disney adventure is unlikely to be remembered in decades to come - or even in months to come, once the next teenage dystopian fantasy inserts itself into movie houses.

The brainy daughter of a NASA scientist, Casey is willful and hopeful and looks to the skies with awe, but she's not a protagonist with depth or dimension, or with a souped-up DeLorean, or a trio of exceptionally needy friends, either.

And Tomorrowland - which takes its name from the Disney theme parks and its inspiration from Uncle Walt himself, with bonus visions from Verne, Edison, and Tesla - isn't going to change the world. Even though that's literally what the Brad Bird-directed movie is about.

Along with Robertson, recently seen acting more her age (25) in Nicholas Sparks' The Longest Ride romance, Tomorrowland stars George Clooney as a disgruntled inventor by the name of Frank Walker. His disgruntledness is explained in extended flashbacks to the 1964 World's Fair, where kid actor Thomas Robinson is Frank, proudly unpacking a duffle bag at the Hall of Invention to show his contraption - a jet pack - to the judge. It kind of works, too, but the judge (Hugh Laurie - we'll see more of him) tells Frank to take a hike.

A little girl with an upper-crusty accent - Athena is her name, Raffey Cassidy is the wide-eyed Brit who plays her - sees something in Frank and his gizmo. She hands him a pin with a "T" on it, and gestures for him to follow as she tries out the World's Fair ride It's a Small World. Thanks to the pin, Frank gets to go on a very special detour.

So, there is Casey in the more-or-less here-and-now, with her NASA cap and her voice-messages to Dad (Tim McGraw) telling him not to worry that she's disappeared again. And there is grown-up, shut-in, cranky Frank. And there is the juvenile, jet-packing Frank. And there is Athena, whose role in all this is pivotal. At a few uncomfortable intersections, it's a bit peculiar, too.

Bird, the whiz-bang director behind Pixar gems The Incredibles and Ratatouille, segued smoothly into live-action (emphasis on action) with 2011's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. But for all the covert convolutions of a Tom Cruise Impossible Missions movie, Bird moved things along with rocketing assuredness and wit.

It proves harder to move the multilayered plots and predicaments of Tomorrowland along. The film is burdened with an earnest, cautionary message that turns the American Indian legend about two wolves - one good, one evil - into an ultimatum, a metaphor of idealism vs. doom.

Visually, Tomorrowland, with its Jetson skyscrapers and whooshy effects, can dazzle. But then it morphs into Terrence Malick's Tree of Life (sun-dappled fields of wind-blown wheat), or Martin Scorsese's Hugo (you'll see), or offers yet another society-on-the-brink-of-the-apocalypse tableau. Come to think of it, with all the tricky, shifting planes of space and time, the father/daughter story, the what-have-we-done-to-our-planet scenarios, and even the NASA logo, Tomorrowland plays like a kiddie version of Christopher Nolan's Interstellar.

Just not as pretentious - nor quite as long.


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Tomorrowland

Directed by Brad Bird. With Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, George Clooney, Thomas Robinson. Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG (for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language).