WARNING – some spoilers for Tomorrowland contained within.
Politics can be a divisive business, and it’s no surprise that a lot of people simply hate talking about it, especially when it comes to appreciating and enjoying art and media. But it’s equally true that it’s frequently a topic that can’t really be avoided, especially since so much of art, culture and human expression is inherently political, whether it means to be or not. When you’re a fan of the filmmaker Brad Bird – whose new film Tomorrowland is now playing in cinemas – avoiding politics is nigh-on impossible, and the resulting discussion can often be fractious and tricky to navigate.
Bird is, after all, an extremely political filmmaker, and one whose specific ideology has proven tough for many people to get to grips with, given its unexpected and unconventional nature. He’s primarily known as a purveyor of family entertainments – from his background as a Disney animator to his tenures on The Simpsons and at Pixar – and we’re used to mainstream family entertainments being relatively unchallenging in their political character, usually settling for broadly universal self-empowerment themes, with a dash of left-leaning acceptance and diversity messaging. That’s not really Bird’s style, though – he’s a much more overtly didactic filmmaker, and deviates from the standard script often enough that his philosophy has become distinctive, recognisable and – to a certain degree – controversial. With Tomorrowland, he’s released his most message-driven movie to date, which makes this a good time to have a look at what makes this supremely talented yet oddly divisive filmmaker tick.
To get one thing out of the way – I don’t think there’s anyone claiming that Brad Bird is anything other than a truly brilliant filmmaker on a technical and aesthetic basis, and I don’t believe any new doubt will be cast on that by the extremely mixed critical reception that Tomorrowland has received. From his animated features to his gun-for-hire work on Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (oddly his most apolitical film, despite being about international espionage), Bird has proven time and again that his mastery of his camera is absolute, combining the meticulous framing and beat-by-beat choreography of a top-tier animator with an impressive command of physical geography and geometry, giving his scenes a fabulous sense of flow, progression and controlled pacing. At his best, he’s also supremely adept with character, sketching flawed, believable protagonists and weaving their arcs seamlessly into the story structure; I’ll always hold up the scene in The Incredibles where young superhero Dash discovers the true extent of his personal potential during a life-or-death chase as one of the medium’s best examples of an action sequence that functions equally as an exploration of character as much as an exhilarating setpiece.
Few would dispute much of this praise – but many would temper it with the assertion that the political views Bird alludes to (or declares outright) in his work are troubling at best, dangerous at worst. The director has shown a strong gravitation towards narratives that examine extraordinary people – those blessed with genius, talent or literal superhuman prowess – and the difficult and sometimes adversarial relationship they share with the rest of society. Bird’s recurrent message flies in the face of the stock Disney ideal of perseverance being the sole requirement in achieving your dreams, instead exploring the concept that some people have inherent natural gifts that mark them out from others, and that it’s the duty of society as a whole to raise these people up and help them achieve their potential, rather than dragging them down. It’s a positive message on paper, but one that’s opened Bird up to repeated accusations of elitism, of disdain for the struggles of the common man and – at their most extreme end – of being a full-on Ayn Rand zealot, a worshipper of self-interest and the moral ascendancy of superior individuals over the parasites that would seek to destroy them through ignorance or envy.
If that strikes you as a pretty extreme criticism to level at a director of children’s movies, then you’d be right, but it’s easy to see where the idea comes from. Bird’s 1999 debut masterpiece, The Iron Giant, largely gets a pass on this front due to its fairly uncontroversial pacifist themes – indeed, its Cold War setting led Bird to be labelled as a Communist sympathiser at the time by some lunatic critics – but it’s with his Pixar work that things ostensibly swung to the right, particularly when it comes to the 2004 superhero blockbuster The Incredibles. For all its brilliance – it remains one of my favourite films of all time – it’s never been able to shake off its reputation as an Objectivist screed, a depiction of literal supermen subjugated by a fearful society, prevented from reaching their potential by snivelling bureaucrats and threatened existentially by a jealous, bitter and pointedly “non-super” villain, seeking to destroy what he can never be. 2007’s culinary comedy Ratatouille added texture to Bird’s philosophy with its progressive ruminations on societal prejudice and the role of the artist in society, but it did so while doubling down on the core idea that some individuals inherently possess more potential than others, and that it’s everyone else’s responsibility to defer to their better judgement or simply step aside.
Since he didn’t write the excellent but impersonal Mission: Impossible film he directed in 2011, Tomorrowland marks the first time Bird has made a real artistic statement in eight years, during which his past works have been dissected and analysed, and battle lines drawn accordingly. If his detractors were hoping for a mellower and more equivocal political approach this time round, then Tomorrowland is guaranteed to sorely disappoint them. If anything, this live-action theme park-inspired fable – co-written with Lost’s Damon Lindelof – is more aggressively didactic than any of his works to date, often teetering on the edge of degenerating into full-on polemic. There’s nothing here to suggest Bird wants to shy away from any of his past political fascinations, so critics made uncomfortable by anything his films have suggested to them in the past will likely emerge with their suspicions confirmed.
Right from the outset, the basic concept of Tomorrowland provides plenty of fodder for those who see Bird as an Objectivist, telling the story of a futuristic utopia in a parallel dimension where Earth’s best and brightest are invited to realise their ideas and ambitions away from the bureaucracy and scepticism of the rest of the world. It invites obvious comparisons to Randian parables like Atlas Shrugged and Bioshock that aren’t easy to shake off, even before the film gets to its real thematic core. Bird’s aim in making Tomorrowland – spelled out letter-by-letter via a rhetorically impressive but absurdly on-the-nose third-act monologue in the film – was to revive the hopeful, jetpack-powered optimism of 1950s and 60s retro-futurism, while lamenting the essential fatalism of the more recent cultural embrace of bleak dystopia as the prevailing vision of humanity’s destiny. The movie yearns for a return to the days where the unknown future was a new frontier of infinite opportunity, where the world’s greatest minds dedicated their lives to achieving the best possible outcomes rather than preventing worst-case scenarios, before the battle of aspiration over resignation was lost.
It’s an interesting, provocative and original message for a big-budget fantasy movie, but the way Bird presents it leaves him open to the same criticisms of social conservatism and elitism that he’s struggled to dispel throughout his career. After all, it does seem to posit the typically right-wing idea that any failure to achieve is down to an attitude problem, while perhaps glossing over the role played by systemic inequality or societal barriers, and apparently champions the idea of the “worthy” simply absconding from the rest of the world and leaving the rest of us to fight it out in the dirt while they enjoy their spaceships and youth tonics. Perhaps people wouldn’t be reading it like this if Bird didn’t have a track record of films with slightly dubious implications, but as is, he’s straining against a rod he made for his own back.
Nevertheless, I still find it important to note a difference between having a discussion about possible interpretations of these themes and committing decisively to the idea that Brad Bird makes Objectivist propaganda, because one is a reasonable stance supported by evidence, and the other isn’t. For starters, Bird has stated on multiple occasions that he has read some Rand, but rejected it decades ago and now considers himself a political centrist who tries to avoid the self-defeating excesses of hard leftist or extreme right-wing politics. Of course, anyone can just say that, but what makes it count in Bird’s case is that his films, when given their proper context, actually do support this. For certain, he seems to sympathise with traditionally conservative ideas of unfettered self-empowerment and betterment, but any suggestion that this spills over into self-centred libertarianism seems to completely ignore the essential altruism that’s absolutely hardwired into all of his work.
The Incredibles is a case in point – people fixate on the negative connotations of the film’s championing of self-determination over societal restraint, while ignoring the fact that its protagonists are superheroes – people motivated to use their natural abilities for the protection of the greater good and enrichment of society as a whole, whose individual goals are driven purely by a need for inner fulfilment rather than enrichment or personal superiority, and whose moments of selfishness are presented as flaws and weaknesses. Similarly, Ratatouille’s rodent chef Remy understands that his gifts in the kitchen make him special and unique, but is never out for aggrandisement – all he wants is to use his skills to create beautiful things for the world to enjoy, to open the eyes of his closed-minded community to the joys of fine artistry, and to challenge and break down the societal barriers of prejudice (as represented by the critic Anton Ego, who genuinely IS an elitist) that prevent individuals from unconventional backgrounds from realising their potential.
All of these ideas recur and are expanded upon in Tomorrowland, even if they’re harder to disentangle due to some uncharacteristically wonky execution. Many have described the movie as a call for blind optimism and denial of harsh truths, perhaps encouraged by the film’s slightly odd focus on lambasting speculative dystopian fiction as the cause of global apathy, rather than, say, a sensationalist news media or systemic educational failings. Admittedly, this thesis does seem to overlook the intellectual value of looking at humanity’s darker side and still finding cause for hope, thus making it unfortunate for Bird that Tomorrowland happened to launch a week after Mad Max: Fury Road – a progressive and staunchly optimistic post-apocalypse film that almost completely debunks this element of his thesis, and also happens to be a much more coherent piece of filmmaking to boot.
Nevertheless, even taken on its own flawed terms, it’s still clear that Tomorrowland’s point isn’t that we ignore uncomfortable truths, but that we strive never to let go of our determination and belief that it’s always possible to better ourselves, fix things and find the ideal solution, rather than settling for a mediocre, unjust status quo out of anger or paranoia. This is a fundamentally progressive concept, not an exclusionary one, and Bird goes out of his way to present Hugh Laurie’s Governor Nix – the one character who DOES hold the Randian belief that Tomorrowland’s people are superior, that Tomorrowland should become an interdimensional ivory tower and that the rest of humanity aren’t worth saving – as the film’s villain. In this way, it becomes possible to not only shrug off the idea of Tomorrowland as an Objectivist work, but to see it as a direct rebuttal of the entire philosophy, a championing of the responsibility of exceptional people to altruistically use their skills to enrich the world, instead of helping only themselves.
This isn’t the only way the film manifests an egalitarian message, however. Though Bird’s preoccupation with exceptional people remains intact, he makes it clearer than ever that he doesn’t intend the term “exceptional” to be an exclusionary one, and that being worthy of Tomorrowland has much more to do with your state of mind and the way you approach self-improvement than it does with who you are born as. This element of his philosophy was previously alluded to by Ratatouille’s key moral – “not everyone can be a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere” – but it goes further in Tomorrowland, which goes to great lengths to showcase the pointedly multicultural makeup of the city’s population in its heyday, before closing out with a beguilingly optimistic final montage that extends invitations to Tomorrowland to a diverse new generation of thinkers and dreamers of all backgrounds and persuasions, including everyone from Chinese buskers and European ballerinas to Indian scientists and African wildlife artists. With that in mind, Bird’s ideology suddenly seems to be less about the ascendancy of a talented minority over the mediocre masses, and more about dispelling fear and allowing talent to overcome mediocrity within yourself.
Is Tomorrowland an oddly-structured, slowly paced and somewhat preachy film with some significant story problems? Yes, it certainly is, and yet I find it hard to come down too aggressively on a film that is clearly trying this hard to change the lives of its audience for the better. That’s no exaggeration; the heavily didactic nature of the storytelling leaves you in little doubt that Bird intended his film to be a life-affirming, inspiring “message movie” that would challenge the thinking of family viewers and leave them with a brighter worldview on exiting the cinema. That’s a generous, admirable goal, even if it is one that it goes about trying to accomplish with an earnestness that often overrides its storytelling sense and ultimately stifles some of the impact it would have had if it was allowed to breathe properly as a narrative. Ultimately, though, if it fails, it does so due to a misapplication of the very best intentions, which is why I suspect Bird will have been hurt by the reaction it’s received, pincered between critics of its artistic merits on one side and of its political intent on the other. It also feels like the director will have been especially frustrated that his hopeful message has been so harmfully misunderstood, because you feel as though he must know that on this occasion he has to accept a lot of the blame for not communicating it clearly enough.
Tomorrowland hasn’t done great business so far, and honestly, I don’t really blame mainstream audiences for not taking to it. It’s an uneven experience that lays out its philosophical ideas in an stodgily direct way, yet is dependent enough on a mystery-based structure that it’s proven nearly impossible to advertise it without disrupting the drip-feed of information that underpins its storytelling. It’s easy to see it petering out in a similar way to fellow Pixar alumnus Andrew Stanton’s 2012 misfire John Carter, which could make it difficult for Bird to get this kind of leeway on a live-action project again. I sincerely hope that’s not the case; for my money, Brad Bird remains one of the best directors in the business today, and a genuinely interesting filmmaking voice – regardless of whether you’re receptive to what he has to say, and despite the struggles he often encounters in making himself perfectly understood. As for Tomorrowland itself, it’s my hope that history judges it kindly, and that its failings don’t end up exacerbating the aversion to risk-taking that’s already plaguing Hollywood. Given how passionately direct he’s been in his pleas to dispel fearfulness and embrace creativity, I feel that outcome would hurt Bird more personally than all of the political op-eds in the world.