Ever since The Incredibles was released in 2004 there have been a contingency of people relentlessly trying to assert that Brad Bird’s filmography is steeped in Randian Objectivism, that he tells stories of the exceptional few being held back by the mediocre masses. To be fair, it’s not difficult to see how one might arrive at this interpretation for The Incredibles, which was full of provocatively elitist dialogue like the famous rumination that if everyone is special then “no one is,” but it’s a more difficult task to apply that reading to the rest of Bird’s family films. (Though wonderfully directed, there’s very little of Bird’s personal vision in Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol) Though many of his protagonists are talented, hard working, and unappreciated, the stories run counter to Rand’s philosophy of the self-prioritization. Bird’s heroes are too compassionate, and their arcs are typically only fulfilled when they learn to share their dreams with others and work together to make the world a better, brighter place. There’s definite hero worship at the heart of Brad Bird’s filmography, but that hero isn’t Ayn Rand – it’s Walt Disney.
There’s an acid test moment early in Tomorrowland that determines if you’re on the same wavelength as Bird. It happens when Cassie (Britt Robertson) goads Frank (George Clooney) into telling the audience about when he was a hopeful young boy going to the 1964 World’s Fair. Clutching a large and very heavy knapsack containing a prized invention, Young Frank steps off the bus and into the fair, awestruck by the promise of The Future. All the while the soundtrack plays the song “There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” from Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress, one of three attractions that premiered at the Fair. If this soundtrack selection got you grinning like an idiot, congratulations, you’ve drank the Disney Kool Aid and will have an absolute blast, because the movie only works when you realize it’s a day at every Disney park compressed into two hours. The bickering dual narrators of George Clooney and Britt Robertson are vintage attraction pre-show banter (so much so that the first time I saw it I half expected Clooney to tell us that the doors in front of us were about to open and go over some last minute safety announcements), the futurism and multicultural harmony are EPCOT in a nutshell, the folksy family parable wouldn’t be out of place in any Disney property, and the ultra-sincere message that anything is possible if you act on your dreams is literally written all over the parks.
Now, knowing how to look at Tomorrowland doesn’t change the fact that it’s kind of a mess, but it does help contextualize that mess. It’s old fashioned, corny, and utterly sincere, and if you’re willing to engage it on those terms you just might enjoy it.