Doom sells, but Brad Bird's defiant Tomorrowland wants us to question what we're buying. 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." Soon, the hero is revealed to be high school science whiz Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a stubborn brainiac who races around in two hoodies and a baseball cap. She's out-badassed 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, a literal oasis of ingenuity, a shiny skyscraper metropolis whose residents zoom around wearing jetpacks -- this, says Bird, is the future we imagined in the past. Call it Aspirational Jetsons.
But Frank, once a dreamer himself, is now a crackpot hermit in a booby-trapped house counting down to Armageddon, the probability of which he's calculated as 100 percent. Casey and Athena press him into action, and Bird layers on plenty of dazzle, 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's made a film that every child should see.