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‘Tomorrowland’ has trouble going back to the future

“Tomorrowland” was the one. When Walt Disney first announced his dream of Disneyland to us 9-year-olds back in 1954, he told us that his “magic kingdom” would be divided into four parts – separate duchies if you will.

There would be Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland.

On my block, we didn’t give a hoot about Adventureland, Frontierland or Fantasyland. But Tomorrowland? You bet. Now we’re talking. Let us at it. How could we scare up the dough and the parental permission to get there?

We loved the future back in the mid-’50s. Find a time when people are full of excitement about the future and you’re almost certainly talking about the past.

In Brad Bird’s movie “Tomorrowland,” the action starts at the New York World’s Fair of 1964, a kind of high-watermark of future worship in America. People still loved the future back then. They hadn’t yet understood that you could land on the moon, but the future still wasn’t going to be an adventure. Instead, it looked like an empty and worrisome fantasy as remote as Frontierland. Excitement about the future is now, in its way, as old-fashioned as cattle-drives, six-guns, saddlebags, chaps and chuck wagons.

At that New York World’s Fair, a young boy finds its Tomorrowland park and wants to show off his homemade rocket pack to the first authorized Futurist he comes across.

He does. It turns out to be Hugh Laurie playing the snide sourpuss in charge. Once he discovers that the kid’s thing works in every way but vertically – the way it’s supposed to – he’s not interested. But it seems another kid – a preternaturally wise pubescent named Athena – is interested. She gives Rocketpack Boy a Tomorrowland pin with a big old T on it.

A few minutes after he touches it, it seems as if he’s transported to a 1964 vision of the future, with people flying around on rocket trains, levitating in midair, who knows what else.

Then, through some complicated narrative we’re transported to the present time and a girl named Casey Newton, the daughter of a NASA engineer. She’s a hopeless tomboy. She loves to climb things and jump over them. She’s also a homemade engineering genius who can instantly look at some stalled project of her engineer father’s and make the one adjustment that gets it to work.

At this point, my deepest regret is that I didn’t have my 5-year-old grandson next to me. At that point, I wondered if I were watching one of the coolest kids’ movies ever made. And one of the best things of all about it is that the engineering prodigy is a girl. So is the wise little sprite from the future named Athena who has come to change our sour present-day view of the future.

So far so good. Really good. I was even with it when I discovered that the little boy with the rocket pack in 1964 grew up to be George Clooney.

Good for George, I said to myself (I was listening intently). What a cool thing to do at this career stage: appear in an ultra-smart, super-hip Disney kids’ movie.

And then? Halfway into this thing, I was very glad my 5-year-old grandson wasn’t parked in the seat next to me after all.

At that point, things are getting really complicated storywise, space guns are going off, and animatronic heads are being sliced off the shoulders of disagreeable androids. And George? It becomes clear to us that the reason Citizen George climbed aboard Bird’s much-awaited Tomorrow-train was for the message.

This is what the old sourballs in the movie exhibition trade used to call “a message picture” as in “if you want to send a message, call Western Union,” as the cigar-chomping bottom-line cynics used to say.

Lots and lots of stuff happens, some of it charming and wonderful to see, most of it a bit more complicated and congested than it needed to be. But then Bird’s co-writer was Damon Lindelof of “Lost” fame on TV so that will, no doubt, help us all understand why there’s so much rubber-band narrative stretching, snapping and twanging all through this baby’s second half.

My 9-year-old self would have liked a lot of the coolness in the movie. But he’d have wondered why it had to be married to all the bumpy storytelling and hollow preachifying – especially at the end where absolutely nothing is coming off the way Bird and Lindelof hoped it would.

“Tomorrowland” is no magic kingdom, unfortunately. When you finish watching, you’ve been with it the whole way – especially because of Britt Robertson as plucky young Casey who “knows how things work” and bad guy Laurie. But as watchable as it remains, the future seems an even more old-fashioned subject at the end than it was when you came in.

I wonder what’s going on in Frontierland?



3 stars

Starring: George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Hugh Laurie, Reffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw

Director: Brad Bird

Running time: 130 minutes

Rating: PG for sci-fi violence and language.

The Lowdown: A couple generations of engineering prodigies team up to rescue the future of human kind.

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