It’s a long-held opinion of mine: I’d rather see a film that was an ambitious failure than a film that was middle-of-the-road and phoned-in. At least the one with ambition is indicative of some kind of vision. And, sometimes, if you’re lucky, there are flashes of the film that the costumers, actors, grips, producers, writers and director were trying to make that didn’t come out quite right.
So, there’s Tomorrowland in a nutshell. While Brad Bird is one of my favorite filmmakers of all time, his unique adventure story seemed like it didn’t know what it wanted to be. It was readily apperent to me when I rewatched the film in its Blu-ray incarnation.
All the time I took the film in, studying it, wanting to understand what went wrong for me. So, like any sane person, I took my disc upstairs, ripped a copy, and started cutting my own version. As it stands, even though I added a cut animated sequence (I’m not sure it was intended to be cut into the film at all), my Tomorrowland is roughly 15 minutes shorter, at 115 minutes including credits.
Here are my initial notes and things that I set out to change as effectively as I can. I’m hindered by the lack of footage and the fact that I can’t isolate music from the audio. I’ve heard a longer cut of the film existed at some point (and, perhaps this is why the film’s original editor, Walter Murch, is one of two editors credited on the film) and I’d love to see how the longer version plays. As it stands, the film’s pretty great action scenes and unique ideas aside, it’s a muddled finished product. Anyway, here are my notes:
INTRODUCTION/WORLD’S FAIR SLUGGISHNESS
Most of the film’s troubles, remarkable, are in its first third. What should be a propulsive launch on a fun rocket ride (Rocket Rod?) is a meandering journey. While one could say that its slow start is trying to build mystery and suspense, there is no mystery. If the audience is supposed to want to see Tomorrowland, then the film gives up the goods WAY too early, when young Frank stumbles his way from the subway car-like transport vehicle hidden beneath the Mary Blair figurines and canals of It’s a Small World.
The Frank and Casey “recording” framing device is stilted and not as cute as the film wants it to be. It’s never really properly called back at the end (is it a new piece of marketing for attracting potential dreamers?). As it turns out at the end, they’re not even making a video recording–it turns out that they’re talking to a crowd of new Athena-class robot recruiters.
So, I cut both the framing device and Frank’s entrance into Tomorrowland. Instead, my version starts with part of the excellent Plus Ultra animation (which is on the Blu-ray as an option to watch before the movie). The final shot of the animation crossfades into the custom Disney castle title, then to the credits and we’re off at the World’s Fair. It’s abrupt but it’s the best I could do. So, we learn about the existence of this awesome future world. That way, when Frank gets the invite from Athena, we already have a hint of what’s in store.
I also tightened up everything at the World’s Fair. Do we really need to know about Frank’s daddy issues? Also, his hemming and hawing in front of Dr. Nix was a bit much, and I shortened down the sequence where he crashes his jetpack, so that there’s a jump cut when Frank hits the fence. We know that Frank’s okay–he’s standing right in front of us telling us about what happened earlier!
But, instead of the protracted sequence of Frank falling off platforms when he gets into Tomorrowland (and, doesn’t that take something away when a freakin’ robot fixes his jetback for him?), we don’t get to see him make it there. It’s more mysterious. I cut directly from Frank transporting over to Casey zipping by on her motorcycle.
WHO IS THIS FILM ABOUT?
This gets me to the film’s next big issue. It doesn’t have a clear focus. Casey Newton is our POV character for all intents and purposes, but the heart of the story is with Frank and Athena. We shouldn’t see Tomorrowland when Frank gets there, we should be in awe when Casey gets to see it. Moreover, we should completely agree when Casey goes to some crazy lengths to get back to the place that she saw when she touched the pin for the first time.
All the cuts I made to the first 15 minutes of the film are intended to get the audience to Casey sooner, while not diminishing the relationship between the Athena and Frank, as it pays off later on in the story rather sweetly. Brad Bird called this a “road movie” and those elements are undeniable. It’s just that it takes far too long to get on the “road to Tomorrowland.”
I also truncated a section in their road trip before they get to Frank’s house. We don’t need Athena being so blatent about how special Casey is. “The Chosen One” is a tired trope–let’s let Casey’s natural brightness win the day instead of something prophetic.
I also cut Athena entirely from this section of the film. We don’t see her place the pin inside Casey’s stuff, or watching Casey from afar, or even confronting Casey’s brother as to where she is (although I thought the fake Girl Scout bit was cute).
This way, Athena just shows up, ready to kick butt at Blast From the Past. It makes it all the weirder that she isn’t an adult–she looks the same as she was in 1964. In the car on the way to Frank’s house is her chance to explain that, of course, she’s a robot. I call moments like this, where a friend of the hero shows up out of nowhere to save his/her butt a “Millennium Falcon,” referencing when Han shoots up Vader and his cronies as Luke tries to blow up the Death Star. This way, Athena gets her “Falcon” moment to show up and save Casey.
Speaking of Blast from the Past, I cut out the scene where the Audioanimatronic agents return to the scene of the explosion and kill three police officers in cold blood. The weird, smiley leader of these silly villains is offputting to me, and I can only think of the evil Inspector Gadget from that terrible 1998 adaptation, false teeth and all. We know Athena and Casey are being persued, and this scene only slows the pacing down further. When the agents show up at Frank’s house, we know exactly who they are–they say so!
There are still problems with the ending of the film. For instance, why did it take this long to tell the audience exactly what the plot of the film was? We don’t learn about the grim prediction of the Monitor until the very last act of the movie, at which point much of the audience is probably already not invested in the story. Nix is a bad guy, but not a villainous character. His death is rather shocking and abrupt, and I think given the upbeat message of the film, redemption was probably a better choice…but I digress.
If I had access to more deleted scenes (of which, it seems, there are plenty), I might have a shot at making better sense of the end fight. I like the ideas there, but, again, while they’re hinted at, the plight of the world with the Monitor is firmed up far too late to make a difference.
AND ANOTHER THING
There are three gratuitous shakey-noisey transportation sequences in the film and so I cut one down substantially. You still see Frank get tossed around as he departs the World’s Fair in the beginning, even if you don’t get to see him arrive there and triumphantly soar around Tomorrowland. The New York to France transportation I cut down quite a bit not only to save the audience yet another redundant, disorienting trip with the characters, but also to get us to Paris that much sooner. The problem is that there’s still so much of this kind of business, that I fear that the audience is fatigued with seeing our heroes shaken, distorted, and making funny noises, that by the time they board the rocket at the Eiffel Tower, I’m completely worn out!
CASEY LOSES OUT
Unfortunately, since I decided that this movie was really about Frank and Athena fixing the problems of Tomorrowland with the help of Casey, Casey is the character that gets the short end of the stick. I cut out more of her background/family life in order to speed things up.
I like Casey’s character, but since she’s just a special/chosen one character, her arc is much less interesting than the unique chemistry between Frank and Athena. Casey doesn’t sacrifice anything–she just exists to reunite the two who make up the emotional center of the story.
The big problem at the end of the film is that we don’t know what’s coming next. Fresh blood might help restore the Tomorrowland dimension to its former glory, but we still don’t understand if/when the discoveries there will be introduced to the world at large. It just feels like the exclusivity has been entirely kept the same, which was part of Nix’s problem. It’s a place for dreamers, but it should also be a place that benefits everybody, which was part of the plan back in the 1960s.
An idea for a coda: remember when Frank says he wanted his jetpack to inspire others back in 1964? How about this: after the new Athena robots go through the portal back to earth, Frank suits up. Boots. Helmet. Goggles. With a few taps on the control panel, New York City pops up inside the portal. He smiles to himself, adjusting his 1964-era T-pin on his flightsuit. In his mind’s eye, he sees Athena smiling back at him through the years. He cracks a wide, beaming smile, taking off vertically. He takes a wide loop over the city, getting a running start into the portal and BOOM he’s in New York. He buzzes Brooklyn, looking out for the people below snapping photos of him with their phones. A little girl looks up from a tenement balcony, and waves at Frank. Frank smiles and waves back at her. She is awestruck. Fade to black.
Like many of the changes that I saw could be made in the film, the obviousness of this ending almost pains me! What a nice bow on top that could be.