Thursday, June 14, 2018

Theory Thursday: "Tomorrowland" (2015) is Underrated

Scene from Tomorrowland
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: The Incredibles 2 releases its first trailer.
Theory: Tomorrowland is underrated.

Tomorrow marks a big day for Pixar fans. It's a day over a decade in the making, when The Incredibles finally releases a sequel to a film that has generally been called one of the studio's best, and arguably among the greatest superhero films of the 21st century. The reviews have been favorable, so there's a lot to look forward to with the family back together and fighting crime. The only real conflict is that this is yet another Pixar film that's getting a sequel, which raises the question: does it really need one? It's tough to argue against the fandom, who seem to be vocal about their demand for the film, especially in a year where prequels and sequels alike have been doing mediocre work at the box office. Still, there's likely one concern that some people will face: director Brad Bird.

It's actually tough to argue against him given his (no pun intended) incredible track record starting with The Iron Giant and his prior work on The Simpsons. He was always destined to be one of the finer voices in mainstream cinema, especially with The Incredibles and Ratatouile to his credit. However, there is one film that many would argue shouldn't be held among his work as a great director. It's a film that in a sense was part of a bigger fad that made it tough to take all that seriously. The film was Tomorrowland, and it was the only one of his films to be an outright box office bomb and solidified the idea that George Clooney could open a big movie. The reviews weren't the worst, but considering its overall performance, it's tough to see many thinking back on the film fondly.

Tomorrowland is essentially part of Disney's attempt to brand itself through a mix of live action remakes of the animated classics and giving their own mythology an upgrade with films like Saving Mr. Banks. In some ways, the film was supposed to be the sci-fi equivalent of The Pirates of the Caribbean, creating a world that was fun and exciting for a new generation who couldn't care less that there was a place called Tomorrowland at Disneyland, which as joked about repeatedly was a view of a future date that is already bygone. It looks cool conceptually, but how do you make that as fun as pirates swinging from ropes to Hans Zimmer scores? The issue is that Tomorrowland never had a chance at creating a character as fun as Captain Jack Sparrow, whose very iconic presence got Johnny Depp an Oscar nomination. It was also too heady and full of preachy liberal-leaning concepts to be the universal blockbuster that one could expect. So in a sense, a George Clooney movie.

But the thing is that Tomorrowland is actually improved because of an accomplished director like Bird at the helm. He has created a world of endless possibilities and a singular adventure that is at times absurd (they do run over a robot designed like a teenage girl) and others exciting. The film plays into an adventure aspect that the live action remakes cannot. It has no preexisting idea of what a movie Tomorrowland looks like. Instead, it uses it to create a utopian environment rattled by corruption. It's a film that manages to have scenes where characters escape in bathtubs while also presenting a message of environmental care in a heady third act that is at times maybe a little much.

For those expecting a straight-up adventure movie, it's a bit of a let down for sure. There isn't enough excitement to totally work. Some could even argue that it's Bird's least exciting movie because it doesn't have memorable characters. However, his set-up is just as novel as his other films, capturing a world where anything is possible and this ridiculous world has a certain grounding that is rather exciting, It is the story of kids entering a new world and earning the ropes. By nature, it's what Disney is good at. There may be moments that are chock-a-block in a lot of respects, but it still has the basic elements necessary to be fun. It may be overlong, but at its center is a film that is far more creative than it has any right to be. 

It's also refreshing given Disney's other modern movies. As mentioned, there's the tepid work of Saving Mr. Banks which did little but assemble a fondness for the Mary Poppins mythology and creator Walt Disney. Likewise, the live action remakes, such as Maleficent and Beauty and the Beast (2017) have done little to separate their value from the films they're adapted from. There's a certain stagnation in these films that can't help but be more than cash-cows. There's no effort, just repurposing classics in a live action setting with modern CG effects. Sometimes it looks cool, but otherwise you rarely get the desired effect, like with Cinderella (2015) or Pete's Dragon (2016) that actually achieved a deeper emotional resonance and visual awe. Tomorrowland was based on a silly concept already, so it only had room to expand on ideas in a way that was meaningful. It could've been just as vapid as the other films, but instead it achieved a unique story that may not stand out in Disney's bigger canon, but definitely doesn't go for something that has been done a half dozen times in the past few years.

Tomorrowland is by no means a masterpiece, especially when compared to Bird's other work as a director. With that said, I'd argue that he has yet to make a downright awful movie, one that's missing any point of existence. At least in his sci-fi universe he creates an environment that is full of creative promise. It's one that asks something of the audience, itself an audacious concept in a modern blockbuster. It wants to create a sense of  purpose for a better future, and it involves working together. For as fun and familiar as the film is, it's because it takes a risk with being preachy that it achieves something different and exciting. Maybe the film could've done better with being more straightforward with its themes of espionage and action, but that's part of Bird's magic. He has ulterior motives and makes cinema that wants to be something more. Tomorrowland just required more patience and willingness than his other films. As a result, it is his most unliked film to date, but it's still one worthy of some attention.

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