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Movie Mom

Copyright 2015 Disney

Copyright 2015 Disney

It begins with an argument. Frank (George Clooney) is trying to tell us the story. But he is repeatedly interrupted by someone we will learn is Casey (Britt Robertson). “Try to be a little more upbeat,” she urges him. The only way he can do that is to go back to when he last felt upbeat, as a child in 1964, when he brought his not-quite-working-yet invention to the New York World’s Fair to submit it in competition. The judge (Hugh Laurie) rejected it, but a young girl who was watching them follows Frank, hands him a pin, and tells him to follow her without being noticed. She is Athena, played with saucer-eyed charm by Raffey Cassidy. That leads him to the “It’s a Small World” ride, which had its premiere at the 1964 World’s Fair, but in this version of the ride, there is a portal to a fabulous Oz-like city of the future.

We then meet Casey in the present day, where she is engaging in a little breaking and entering at a NASA facility in Cape Canaveral, trying to stop the machines that are tearing it down. Her father (a warm and wonderfully natural Tim McGraw) is a NASA engineer who has been laid off as his entire program is shutting down. Casey is caught and arrested, and when she is being released, among her things is the same pin. And when she touches it, she is transported to a wheat field with that same city in the distance. The shot is an homage to the iconic image of the Emerald City from the poppy field. She wants to get back there. She feels that she needs to get back there. And so she tries to track down the pin, which takes her to a store filled with sci-fi artifacts run by Kathryn Hahn and Keegan-Michael Key, who manage to be both very funny and surprisingly menacing. The store is called Blast from the Past, a name that turns out to be quite literal when some guys dressed in black with scary grins and big guns show up.

Athena arrives, looking not a day older than in 1964, and takes Casey to see Frank, now a grumpy recluse with a grizzly gray beard stubble and a holographic dog. When the guys in black show up, they are held back by Frank’s elaborate system of booby traps long enough for Frank, Casey, and Athena to escape. Eventually they make it back to Tomorrowland, which looks quite different from the pristine and joyful version Casey first saw.

There are some magical moments, but also some choices so poor they suggest last-minute panic re-cutting.  That last scene with Clooney and Cassidy is weird and creepy, even more so because it is intended to be touching.  But in much of the film, co-writer/director Brad Bird, working with “Lost’s” Damon Lindelof, combines some of the themes from his earlier films, “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille,” and even “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” so that the story’s superbly staged action sequences and gorgeously imagined settings underlie ideas about creativity, optimism, and the power of ideas and imagination. It is all in the tradition and the spirit of the man behind the theme park area that inspired the film.

Early on, Casey tells her dispirited father, who describes himself as “a NASA engineer without a launch,” the Cherokee story he used to tell her. Two wolves are fighting. One represents darkness and despair. One represents light and hope. Which one will win? The one that you feed. It is clear that Bird wants us to feed the wolf of light and hope, and this film gives that wolf some real nourishment.

Parents should know that this film includes sci-fi/action/fantasy peril and violence including weapons, characters injured and killed, themes of dystopia and destruction, and some mild language (hell, damn).

Family discussion: What made Casey special? What invention would you like to create to make a better future? Would you like to have a friend like Athena?

If you like this, try: Disney classics from the original Tomorrowland era like “Escape from Witch Mountain” and “Swiss Family Robinson”

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