Disney’s Tomorrowland overtly seeks to be a beacon of hopefulness in a cynical world, as foretold in the lyrics of every bad sitcom theme song from eighties. But even if you consider that a worthwhile goal (and I do), there’s a key flaw in its methods. At no point does it seem to comprehend that all-important distinction between making people laugh and telling people to laugh. They’ll throw roses at you for the first, dildos at you for the second. As a result, rather than giving us something to be hopeful about, Tomorrowland just exhorts us to smile for two hours like a deranged cheer coach. Its only explanation of why we should be more hopeful is “because hope is better than despair!”
Yikes, that’s a reactionary kind of “hope,” isn’t it? That’s not the kind of hope that’s contagious, it’s the kind of hope that makes you wonder how bad it really is. The kind of thing someone tells you on your way to the euthanasia needle so you don’t squirm.
The story follows a teenager named Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), whose father is an out-of-work NASA engineer played by Tim McGraw, and whose mother is absent because this is a Disney movie and plucky teens never have mothers in Disney movies. (To Tomorrowland‘s minor credit, there’s no tearful scene that explains where mom is and she never shows up in a locket like in Super 8). Casey spends her nights trying to sabotage the cranes taking apart shuttle launch equipment at Cape Canaveral and her days cheering up dad and wondering why her high school teachers focus only on the world’s problems (global warming, famines, droughts, war) and never on the world’s solutions. (Probably because they’re teachers, not inventors). She’s a prodigy, a pro-science terrorist, a relentless believer in mankind’s ingenuity, and her family’s rock all rolled into one, not to mention model pretty, with a flawless figure and big, pouty lips with a cleft in the bottom (Britt Robertson is also 25, and looks it). The movie tries to hide her (or at least tries to make it look like they’re trying to hide her) underneath ball caps and hoodies, but you can’t turn Gisele into Annie, and a woman this conventionally beautiful constantly telling you to cheer up kind of feels like a toothpaste commercial.
Early in the film, Casey tells her dad “the story about the two wolves.” This was apparently her bedtime story growing up, and it goes something like: “There are two wolves fighting inside of all of us: one represents lightness and hope, the other darkness and despair. Which one wins?”
(Answer: “The one you feed.”)
Now, you could insert virtually any animal into this dumb parable (squirrels, lizards, tigers, sloths) and the message (“buck up, fella!”) would stay the same. My question: why wolves? Last I checked, wolves aren’t known for fighting, they’re known for hunting in packs. The wolf story is a perfect microcosm of Tomorrowland: a flawed metaphor to illustrate a vague, smarmy platitude. And not an original metaphor either, one pulled from your religious aunt’s email forwards. (“Listen up, little Jimmy. Have I ever told you the story of how your soul is made of 10 ferrets f*cking?”)
At some point, Casey finds her golden ticket to Tomorrowland, a parallel dimension (I think?) where the world’s best scientists and artists have used their talents to create a super advanced civilization living in a magical world of possibility. How do we know when Casey has landed in this dimension, by the way? Because she appears in a golden field of sun-drenched wheat under a cornflower sky. You know where else I saw blue skies and golden wheat represent hope and positivity? In Heaven Is For Real.
Turns out, Tomorrowland‘s vision of techno utopia looks a lot like a heartland-pandering God parable. It’s selling pretty much the same kind of reactionary optimism, where an evil psychiatrist can’t see a little boy’s vision of heaven, the same way a depressed dad can’t get to Tomorrowland just by touching the button like his daughter: in both cases, they’re doomed simply by their failure to imagine a bright future. And yes, I’m deliberately using “bright future” here the same way Stalin’s propaganda did.
By the time Casey makes it up to Tomorrowland and discovers that what’s ultimately dooming mankind isn’t greenhouse gases or superbugs, it’s actually negative thinking, you’re praying hard for the movie to end, and the third act hasn’t even begun yet. It’s impossible to enjoy Tomorrowland‘s jet packs and ray guns and wonder (and the imagery would be beautiful under different circumstances) when it’s all built on a foundation of such pure smarm. “Your wildest dreams will all come true if you just belie–” FUCK YOU. FUUUUUUUUUUUCK YOOOOOOOOOUUUUUU.
Another problem is that the main bad guys are perfectly coiffed, permanently-smiling robots trying to kill Casey and Clooney before they get to Tomorrowland (just why they’re trying to kill them is another story…). These would actually be amazing villains in another movie – shiny smiles masking creeping dread like Disney sitcom kids – but here they just feel like the movie’s id. Creepily smiling murderous robots are exactly what I imagine we’d all look like if we took Tomorrowland‘s constant exhortations to unearned positivity at face value. Smile smile smile! Oh no I threw a spring!
Also, there isn’t a single adult female in this movie. Sure, Britt Robertson is actually an adult female, but she’s playing a teen and sort of comes off like the Disney version of a “barely legal” actress in pigtails. Meanwhile, Casey doesn’t have a mom, and George Clooney’s love interest is a 10-year-old girl. The latter subplot is explained adequately enough that it’d be fine, even an asset, in another movie (The Professional, say), but in the absence of any other female presence in Tomorrowland, it comes off almost as creepy as I first made it sound.
“There are simultaneous epidemics of obesity and starving – how is that even possible?!” says the bad guy, Hugh Laurie, dissin’ da Earth, and it’s generally a bad sign when the villain in your movie has all the best lines and makes the most sense. We know he’s “bad,” but the “good” characters never successfully refute anything he says. The entire movie consists of “humanity has a better chance if we think positive!” without offering a single example. The film ends on a sort of recruitment video for the people who will one day change the world for the better (with their optimism and ingenuity!). These include a blonde girl dancing ballet and an Asian dude playing guitar in the town square. Jesus, what is this, a Coke commercial? I kid, there was already an actual Coke commercial 20 minutes earlier.
Point being, Tomorrowland borrows every trope and image advertisers have been using to cynically sell us sh*t for the last 60 years and then petulantly demands to know why we’re all so cynical. It feels less like innocent optimism than a Frankenstein’s monster created from the spare parts of religion, The Secret, and a Steve Jobs keynote address.
The problem isn’t the context either. One of the sweetest moments I can think of in any Disney film is in Toy Story 3 when, headed for the incinerator, the toys hold hands. Even if it came in the context of a cartoon sequel designed to sell a multi-national corporation more toys, it was infinitely sweeter and more hope-inducing message than anything in Tomorrowland, a movie that thinks telling us how to feel is enough to make us feel.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.