Disney has always had a profitable sideline in live-action movies for viewers slightly older than those who flock to its animated films. The likes of the Herbie comedies (beginning in 1969 with The Love Bug) and Mary Poppins were lucrative examples, but there were also largely unsung examples of the studio appealing to a marginally older demographic.
Some remain unsung for a reason (such as the 1979 comedy Hill’s Angels, about a reverend who recruits a group of plucky women to join his fight against the Mob) but there were also high-points like the 1981 adventure Dragonslayer, which demonstrated a high level of craftsmanship and flair and a genuine respect for its audience.
It is to this tradition that the current Disney fantasy Tomorrowland aspires. It is an intermittently interesting science-fiction movie that tries to incorporate big philosophical ideas into an adventure format – and fails. The first third of the film romps along quite nicely; in the remaining two, a so-so cast essentially reads the plot aloud. Basil Exposition would have balked.
If Mad Max: Fury Road employs a visual vocabulary that enables it to be understood globally, Tomorrowland is the opposite: when it isn’t incomprehensible, it is dull. And when it isn’t that, it’s strangely worthy – Benetton might have rejected the all-nations final montage – with odd glimpses of the Nietzschean tendencies that its director Brad Bird displayed in parts of one of his earlier movies, The Incredibles. Tomorrowland features a master race of super-talented, spick-and-span child prodigies, but doesn’t specify what its idealistic future might hold for youngsters who belch and fart and don’t always do their homework on time (or at all).
None of this would be noteworthy if the picture didn’t star George Clooney and have an estimated budget of around $175m. In those terms, it has been a commercial flop, grossing just $32.9m from its first three days in the US. (It came third in this week’s UK box-office chart, behind Pitch Perfect 2 and Mad Max: Fury Road, two films that had already been on release for a fortnight.)
Its relative failure has led some commentators to question the wisdom of having a female lead in a blockbuster – in this case, 25-year-old Britt Robertson. Of course, that’s poppycock; Twilight and The Hunger Games seemed to do just fine with the considerable impediment of a young woman in the main part.
A bigger problem is that no one really knew in advance what the film was about. The trailers were confusing, the plot impossible to distil. Ambiguity can be wonderful in cinema. Enigmas are far too thin on the ground these days. But an audience needs to have its interest piqued if it is going to hand over the price of admission, and Tomorrowland didn’t manage that on a large enough scale.
Disney must also bear some of the blame for its complacent attitude towards marketing the film. As long as three months ago, I was hearing rumours that the studio was nervous about the lack of viewer awareness surrounding Tomorrowland. No one had heard of it, no one knew what it was, no one was expressing any excitement about seeing it. Disney did little to change that situation.
The minimum-access press junket arranged to promote the film, where journalists get a blink-and-you-miss-it interview with key personnel, was the sort of thing that might be expected for an Avengers or Star Wars movie, where everyone is clamouring for time with the filmmakers and stars. In the case of Tomorrowland, the studio should have done everything in its power to get the film out there, rather than employing the same strategy it used to sell Avengers: Age of Ultron (which, let’s face it, would still have broken box-office records even if it had been promoted with nothing more than a sandwich board).
It’s one thing for viewers to say, having seen the film, that it was a disappointment. But I feel sorry for the filmmakers in this instance. They never had much of a fighting chance. Perhaps the nuances have gone out of promotion on this scale, so that anything that isn’t a blockbuster risks getting lost down the back of the settee. To look at the campaign for Tomorrowland, you’d think Disney had already decided it was yesterday’s news.
Tomorrowland is on release.