Don’t believe the (negative) hype. Brad Birds’ live action Disney epic Tomorrowland is a great kids’ movie. Three weeks into the movie’s theatrical release, it’s still $20 million dollars short of recouping its budget and most of that money came from outside of the United States. Tomorrowland might eventually break even, but considering those numbers & its middling critical response it’s still hard not to see it as an all-around flop. That fact has little to say about the movie’s quality, though. Just as with Disney’s other most infamous live action flops, The Rocketeer & John Carter, Tomorrowland is a little hokey & old-fashioned, but also way better than its reputation indicates. Actually, I’d even go far enoguh to say it’s an easy best out of the three.
Although it’s admittedly a ham-handed parable about the power of positive thinking, Tomorrowland also manages to be the exact kind of smart-scary-dark-ambitious kids’ media that people are supposedly hungry to make a comeback, the kind that doesn’t treat its pintsized audience like dolts. It’s not afraid to confront children with big sci-fi ideas like parallel universes & the ways utopias can devolve into dystopias. It’s also not afraid to feel dangerous. People get scuffed up, occasionally die even, in a way that suggests that actions have consequences. Characters zip around in jetpacks & rocket ships, but never in a way that feels completely safe from bodily harm. After suffering through the horrendous ad for the Minions sequel that preceded the film, it was refreshing to see Disney take a chance on something that challenges their younger audience’s imagination, intellect, and desire to be scared. It was also a bummer that it was a gamble that didn’t work out for them financially.
In an alternate reality, a George Clooney-starring sci-fi fantasy epic about saving the world from its inevitable demise through sheer optimism might have been a hit. In this world, it’s failed to make much of a splash at all. In a lot of unexpected ways, Tomorrowland reminds me of another live action children’s media flop from the past decade, 2008’s City of Ember. Although City of Ember didn’t do well at the box office, it’s a smart & scary parable that covers a lot of the same ground as Tomorrowland: climate change, the dangers of stagnant thinking & an over-controlling governing body that thinks it knows best, and the idea that optimism and self-actualization can change the course of world’s seemingly hopeless path to self-destruction.
I honestly believe that both Tomorrowland & City of Ember will connect with enough young minds to have a cultural staying power that will only grow as the years go on. In the meantime that kind of gradual cult following is going to do little to encourage studios to take risks on ambitious children’s media like Tomorrowland instead of churning out more Minions sequels or whatever, which is sad considering the vast difference in quality (something I’m guessing about, based solely on an ad). But maybe I should think more positively and hope for the best. The future might be better for it.