By Ali Berman
The reviews for Disney’s summer flick Tomorrowland have been hit or miss, some critics praising it for being “hopeful” while others called it “preachy”. To this humane educator, it was an absolute breath of fresh air, a call to action for all of humanity to step up to help solve our world’s biggest problems through creativity, critical thinking, and compassion.
(Warning: There will be major spoilers in this review.)
The film follows Casey Newton, a gifted teenager with a knack for understanding how things work, and the daughter of a NASA engineer. Her most prized possession? Her NASA baseball cap. The character isn’t just armed with smarts. The thing that makes her really special is her optimism and drive to create a better world. One of my favorite scenes from the film came early on, a montage of her teachers talking about serious global issues like climate change. In each scene Casey’s hand shoots up in the air, but no one calls on her. When she finally gets to ask her question, she asks, “But what are we doing to fix it?” The teacher was left speechless.
Of course I thought, Casey would absolutely love humane education, a method of teaching that doesn’t just discuss the problem. It calls on students to brainstorms solutions, to imagine a world better than the one that exists today. Humane education is 100% devoted to solving problems, something it has in common with the message in Tomorrowland.
The plot hinges around Casey’s journey with her unwilling companion, Frank Walker, a man who over the years has lost his hope. Inside Walker’s house is a countdown device to the end of the world, a day that has been predicted by the advanced technology inside Tomorrowland. However, when that device meets Casey, for the very first time, instead of maintaining a 100% probability that the world will end, it flickers. Walker sees that Casey’s hope, her belief that problems can be fixed, gives the world a fighting chance. Frank, now with a flicker of hope himself, and Casey then embark on an adventure with the aim to save the world from total destruction. So, you might say the stakes are high.
As it’s a Disney film, I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that Casey and Frank, with the help of a smart and strong robot who looks like a 12-year-old girl, do save the world. And even better, they begin recruiting others who share their vision – dreamers they call them – to get to work. The world doesn’t just need someone to stave off the apocalypse. It needs a dedicated group of people from the next generation to step up and make it a world we can be proud of.
In addition to a theme that could come right out of the humane education playbook – creating a next generation of changemakers – the film also won my heart by choosing a teenage girl who is an ace with math and science as the film’s champion. Casey, unlike so many female protagonists, has no love interest, and the character spends the entire film in jeans, a t-shirt, sweatshirt and NASA cap. It’s hardly the vision of teenage girl the younger generation is constantly shown in TV, movies, and magazines. Casey is a hero because of her intelligence, her drive, and her compassion, showing young women around the world what qualities really matter. And, of course, this film passes the Bechdel Test (as long as female robots count as female characters).
Anyone who has followed director Brad Bird’s films (The Incredibles, The Iron Giant) knows that he cares as much about conveying a message as he does about crafting a good story. Tomorrowland does both. Hopefully it will help inspire youth to become “dreamers”, as the film puts it, or “changemakers” as we do.