Walt Disney Pictures
Let’s just get this out of the way right now: movies are for everyone, but some movies are more specifically tailored for different audiences. Tomorrowland, Disney’s latest attempt at an original live-action outing, is a feel-good family-friendly feature that, thanks to an assortment of slip-ups and mishaps, was not only made for the wrong audience, but then sold to them to boot.
The George Clooney-starring feature opened over the holiday weekend, and was quickly dinged as a flop, thanks to a weekend take that currently sits just below $42 million (per BoxOfficeMojo). Various outlets and pundits (including this piece over at Variety) have pinned Tomorrowland’s failures on Hollywood’s “originality problem,” blaming audiences for being more interested in sequels and remakes to pay attention to films sparked by original material. But Tomorrowland’s problem is not that it is too original or too unique or too fresh or too new, but that it failed to leverage those charms – and charms they are – into a feature focused at the precise audience that should be learning to appreciate genuinely new movies right now: kids.
Brad Bird’s feature is all about wonder, possibility, and progress – basically, it’s got the kind of messaging that is perfect for a younger skewing audience. Although the film is also about combating pessimism and the creation of negative thoughts (in fact, within the context of the film, pessimism and negative thinking are capable of spawning literal disasters), Tomorrowland is mainly concerned with the possibilities of the future, particularly as it applies to kids. The savior of the entire film is Britt Robertson’s plucky teen genius Casey, who uses her unique (and very optimistic) worldview to literally save the planet. When Casey thinks something good could happen – like, oh, the world not going boom – it lowers the chances of the world actually going boom.
Youthful optimism is the lifeblood of Tomorrowland. It’s a little bit like someone decided to take a movie that was built on previous Peter Pan lessons, i.e. clapping really hard and believing something a lot – especially if you’re a kid – can make it happen. It’s a kids’ movie, or at least, it should be.
Tomorrowland is rated PG, “for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language,” and while that’s not enough to earmark the feature as being too mature for some audiences, it does hint at some of the issues that keep Tomorrowland from jiving with kids and families in quite the way it should have.
There’s a discomfiting level of violence to the film that, while not hinted at during the majority of the film’s marketing (an entirely different issue: what kid goes for mystery box marketing?), makes it an awkward watch for the younger set (or, at least the younger set’s violence-averse parents or guardians). Casey falls down a set of stairs and smacks her face repeatedly (and, later, is slammed into the ground by Frank’s tricked out house). Frank (Clooney) is similarly tossed around, while Athena (Raffey Cassidy) is hit by a car in one of those sudden, out-of-nowhere sequences that Hollywood as a whole should jettison right now (related: the sudden, out-of-nowhere car accident T-bone craze that has swept the world and that also needs to be put to a swift death, perhaps also by T-bone). It’s all a bit too smashy and loud, and that’s before the weirdo robots (who, now that we think about it, are never really explained) come after our trio of heroes in a thrilling/pretty scary action sequence.
Low-level violence isn’t the only thing that keeps the film from appealing to younger audiences, though. Another part of the problem? It just doesn’t look like a kids’ movie, and we mean that in the most basic way possible: casting-wise.
Hollywood has long enjoyed casting older actors and actresses as high school students, and although the twenty-five-year-old Robertson does her best to infuse Casey with the necessary youthful pluck and wide-eyed innocence, it doesn’t always stick. The age gap between Robertson and her character is made even more obvious by the appearance of Cassidy who, at age twelve, looks and moves like the real kid she is (that her character is an actual robot makes this all the more amusing, but Cassidy is very much the real deal, and she’s a total joy to watch). Robertson is good in her role, but she’s not right for it, and she certainly doesn’t sell the parts of Casey that are most interesting to younger viewers (you know, that she’s a kid, too).
And then there’s the Clooney issue. A film like Tomorrowland, one that is so rich in imagination and genuine good feeling, shouldn’t require the presence of a big-time (and adult) movie star. Clooney is fine as Frank, but it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing Clooney and thinking, “you know what, that guy needs to be in more kids movies.” Sure, he might be around to add gravitas and adult emotion, but the film already has someone who can do that – and it just so happens to be young Cassidy, the best part of the film and the one character that appeals to both kids and adults. No kid looks up to George Clooney, and casting him as the lead in a film like Tomorrowland will not change that.
So why did Tomorrowland fail? Because the exact audience that could have loved it didn’t even know it was made for them.