To the credit of Disney's marketing team, the intriguingly vague previews for Tomorrowland provided just enough (a grizzled George Clooney, "directed by Brad Bird" in the credits, no number at the title's end or colon in its middle) to make the film appear promising without explicitly stating what it was about, or whom it was meant for. Having now seen Bird's futuristic adventure, I know what it's about - mainly because, from its first seconds, Disney's latest live-action endeavor keeps spelling out its themes in big block letters. Whom it's meant for, however, remains a mystery.
No movie that opens with Clooney directly addressing the camera could ever be accused of not having an agenda. And just like last year's The Monuments Men made a clumsily aggressive argument for the appreciation of art, Tomorrowland - the tale of a teen (Britt Robertson) whose optimism and can-do attitude just might save the world - makes a clumsily aggressive argument for the appreciation of imagination. If I may ask: Who, beyond Nazis or the Nazi-esque, is against either of these things? No one preaches to the choir quite like George Clooney, and the biggest disappointment here among many disappointments is that the hectoring tone he employs (only somewhat ironically) in his character's introductory lecture about cultural decline is, for 130 minutes, pretty much echoed by the film itself. Thankfully, Bird is a visually acute director; Tomorrowland's CGI effects may be wanting, but at least its cutting is sharp and there's nearly always some eye-catching production design. (A detour to Paris features the rather staggering sight of the Eiffel Tower, very slowly, splitting in half.) But beyond emerging as a long harangue against the sourpusses of the modern world, Bird's outing is rife with forced enthusiasm and fraudulent emotion, and seems designed either for fairly sophisticated first-graders or slightly slow-witted adults, with neither group likely to leave terribly awed.
Both groups could certainly leave confused, though. There's a nice robot (Raffey Cassidy) and a bunch of mean robots (two of them, blessedly, played by Kathryn Hahn and Keegan-Michael Key), and teleportation by means of lapel pins and a bathtub. There are jet packs that don't work and jet packs that work incredibly well, and some astonishingly violent physical fights and gunplay - or rather, laser-play - for a PG release. (During its car chases, I was also uncomfortably distracted when no one in this "family" entertainment bothered to buckle a seat belt.) There are holograms and weapons that freeze time and a doomsday machine clicking down red numbers, and because the titular product placement apparently wasn't enough, there's a slow boat ride through Disney's "It's a Small World." There's Clooney as a grumpy inventor with a senseless animosity toward Robertson. There's Hugh Laurie as a supercilious bad guy whose villainy is signified by Laurie's British accent. There's Tim McGraw as a NASA engineer. I don't know what else to say about that one.
There is, in other words, an awful lot in this melting pot, and the results do earn points for creativity, if not originality. Yet while points are also docked for the chaotic action, unconvincing banter (especially Robertson's and Clooney's too-practiced repartee), and climactic sentimentality that's so relentlessly poured on you can practically see the off-screen ladles, the movie's biggest problem is one of tone. All told, and this isn't necessarily an insult, Tomorrowland somewhat resembles a super-size version of one of those environmental documentaries for kids that ends with a rousing call to action. But in shouting "Think!", "Dream!", "Cheer up!", and "Have fun!" with such insistence, and at such deafening volume, those directives quickly feel like commands. Instead of being treated to a bag of candy, we're being ordered to eat our vegetables.
Early in director Gil Kenan's remake of Poltergeist, the beleaguered dad played by Sam Rockwell reveals that he's just been laid off from his job at the John Deere facility in Moline. Isn't this poor guy's situation unfortunate enough without adding unruly, child-snatching spirits to the mix? Happily, though, his and his family's pain turns out to be, for the most part, our pleasure. Hewing closely to Tobe Hooper's still-pretty-damned-scary original, David Lindsay-Abaire's screenplay keeps threatening to become more interesting than its 1982 blueprint allows; a potentially juicy subplot involving the unemployed Rockwell's spending habits is established only to be quickly ignored. (It feels like numerous scenes here, especially transitional ones, got lost in the editing room.) But this clever, confident, 90-minute update is speedily yet not hastily paced and boasts a bunch of quick, unexpected jolts that even longtime Poltergeist fans - I've watched the original at least two dozen times - won't see coming. And while I both enjoyed and appreciated the portrayals of Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt (a dream of a screen duo) as the unlucky clan's parents and Jane Adams and Jared Harris as squabbling, divorced paranormal investigators, Kenan does his finest work with the kids: Saxon Sharbino, Kyle Catlett, and Kennedi Clements are, despite the oxymoronic sentiment, beautifully directed naturals. It's not a film anyone needed, but this Poltergeist is also smarter and funnier than it needed to be, with just enough creepy/giggly references to upturned cemeteries and malevolent trees and nightmarish clown dolls (as if there were any other kind) to make cynical fortysomethings feel like teens again. You've heard the idiom "familiarity breeds contempt"? Not always.