Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) loves science and the promise of the future. She loves them so much that she's willing to sneak onto NASA property at night in order to sabotage the cranes dismantling a shuttle-launch platform. This endeavor eventually lands her in the slammer, and after being released on bail, she finds among her returned possessions a small enamel "T" pin that she swears isn't hers. It doesn't take long before she discovers that touching the pin immerses her in a vision of an ideal future, full of amber waves of grain and a metropolis that's like the Emerald City with monorails. The fervor of this hallucination leads her to the doorstep of Frank Walker (George Clooney), an embittered inventor who nevertheless believes what she saw. Why? Because when he was young, he saw it too -- and he knew what it was trying to tell him.
Since the theme-park-ride-turned-movie-franchise concept worked so lucratively for Pirates of the Caribbean, it's not surprising that Disney is now mining the rest of its amusement parks for inspiration. And considering the recent successes of space-themed properties like Guardians of the Galaxy (created by Marvel, now owned by Disney), Toy Story's Buzz Lightyear (Pixar, now Disney), and Star Wars (Lucasfilm, now Disney), Tomorrowland certainly makes more sense to green-light than, say, It's A Small World After All. Also in the film's favor: Director and co-writer Brad Bird (famous for The Iron Giant and The Incredibles) is a contrarian who prefers space-age optimism to our current love affair with dystopias. Bird excels at moments filled with awe and magical possibility, and the early scenes of a young Frank (Thomas Robinson) testing out his homemade jetpack will trigger the same kind of tingling glee people feel when they're flying in their dreams.
Unfortunately, Tomorrowland is also full of the unvarnished elitism critics found in The Incredibles: Its utopic vision is one populated exclusively by "exceptional people," who can devote all of their time to prototyping the world's problems away without having to bother with the petty and annoying rabble. This Übermensch philosophy, melded with Disney's blue-sky, pixie-dust cheerfulness, leads to the explicit message that simply dreaming of better things is enough of a start in the right direction -- a theory quickly disproven by the endless credits, which are filled with the names of hundreds of special-effects technicians who certainly did more than dream while hunched over their workstations. (And cynics will have a field day spotting all of the product placements, right down to a glucose-starved Casey guzzling down a recommended Coca-Cola -- the primary vendor of soda at Disney's theme parks -- as a cure for teleportation sickness.)
Tomorrowland does have one standout element, and that's the performance of young British actress Raffey Cassidy as Athena, a preternaturally poised 12-year-old first seen in a flashback at the 1964 World's Fair. Possessing steely-grey eyes, an enchanting spray of freckles, and the same precocious child-woman bearing as prodigies like Jodie Foster and Saoirse Ronan, she is the most fascinating part of a movie packed with explosions and martial-arts mayhem. Scenes between her and any of her co-stars -- including Clooney -- aren't even a fair fight, as her acute, austere grace quietly steals every scene she's in. Tomorrowland tries to fill our heads with theme-park visions of the future, but the only prognostication worth hoping for is a long and fruitful career for Cassidy.