"Imagination is more important than knowledge." The Albert Einstein quote appears in Tomorrowland and it's an admirable idea. Writer/director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) and co-writer Damon Lindelof (Lost) base their movie on it. They also hold it like a trophy over our heads. But Tomorrowland isn't really that imaginative. It's dazzling to look at, but this is a Disney movie. It's simplistic. It's optimistic. And it features kids who bear no reflection to actual living breathing ones. It's a pitch to the child in all of us.
Based on a Disney theme park concept, Tomorrowland begins in 1965 where a formulaic prologue introduces us to young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson, who grows up to be George Clooney). He's at the World's Fair in New York with his invention: a vacuum cleaner jet pack that doesn't really work. Frank thinks he can impress with his design and invincible spirit nonetheless. But the judge (Hugh Laurie) isn't buying.
Also at the fair, Frank falls for Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a grey-eyed beauty like her namesake. And she gives him a pin — a ticket to "Tomorrowland," a utopia created by history's greatest minds. Immediately, the signature themes of Bird (indomitable spirit) and Lindelof (a secret world behind the curtain) are apparent.
Little Frank believes his jet pack can be an inspiration, even if it doesn't work. And that notion is a valuable one to teach children and adults alike, but the rest of the movie spins its wheels saying the same thing. There's supposed to be a movie here, but it seems like the filmmakers started with a theme and built a story around it.
In the present time, teenager Casey Newton (Britt Robertson, who's 25-years-old) emerges as a candidate for Plus Ultra, a secret club of Tomorrowland artists and thinkers, after she proves her worth sabotaging NASA, her father's (Tim McGraw) former employer. Casey loves the space program and tries to halt the dismantling of it. It's an exercise in futility, but it does earmark her for destiny. She meets Athena also, gets a pin, and eventually sets out to find Frank, now a curmudgeon (and Clooney) after being exiled from Tomorrowland, who lives amongst a horde of cool gadgets. He's like a bitchy Gizmo from Duck Tales.
I won't spoil the rest of the film's story, which relies on surprises and detours, but I will say the movie offers little in the way of imagination itself. It's not without character and effort, the movie is obviously the work of talented people, but we've seen all this stuff before. Even Tomorrowland itself, which is supposed to be the city center of imagination and wonder, isn't much different from the capital of Xandar, the metropolis in last year's Guardians of the Galaxy. The antiseptic sleekness of it is cool-looking, but only if you haven't seen a lot of other movies, or airports, or malls.
On an artistic level, it's hilarious for Disney to tell the world to be imaginative. This is a corporation with a $180 billion market cap and a long history of adapted screenplays, remakes, and reboots. That contradiction stuck in my brain, despite my admiration for Bird and Lindelof's work, and stayed there throughout the movie. If Disney really valued art and imagination, they would make more original films (like Fantasia) and less watered down crapola like The Blind Side and The Help.
Plus, any real thinker would challenge Einstein's quote, not worship it. Isn't imagination based in knowledge? Weren't the most forward-thinkers in history experienced in any way? Imagination is boundless, while knowledge, as Einstein also said, is based on what we know of the existing world. Einstein's quote, while catchy, isn't really true. The two concepts, imagination and knowledge, aren't mutually exclusive.
The message is also tainted by a century of advertising. I was constantly encouraged to "shoot for the stars" and "think outside the box" as a kid. That's why I'm a writer living in a studio apartment and not a stockbroker living in the Hamptons. Here's a better quote: "Art can lead to happiness, not riches." Kids today, especially Americans, are encouraged in every way possible to be themselves so a preachy Disney movie that's essentially one of those black-bordered motivational posters is a tad unncessary.
I'm playing devil's advocate a bit probably. Tomorrowland is a response to the rampant negativity of the media and the endless barrage of apocalyptic movies and TV shows made today. I get that. Its modus operandi is ambitious. The film wants to believe in a successful future for the world — like Casey says incredulously in one scene, "Can't we fix it?!" The challenge is nice, but an empty motivational poster is just a poster. Tomorrowland doesn't have the smarts to paint an original or even specific portrait of the future, never mind motivate a generation. It's a generalization of a movie, no more profound than a commercial telling you to "Just Do It."