There has been some effort online to stress Damon Lindelof's presence as co-writer of Tomorrowland and thus somehow save the reputation of the film's director and other writer, Brad Bird. Which presumes in the first place that Tomorrowland is bad enough to justify insulating the beloved auteur from it, and I think that's far from an objective truth, even though it's obviously the worst of his five features. But more to the point, there's no separating Bird from Tomorrowland: it might share the name with a large segment of the Disneyland and Magic Kingdom theme parks and thus be part of the Disney corporation's endless game of "brand extension", and it might be a phenomenally overpriced summer tentpole, but this is no director-for-hire job; this is absolutely a movie made by the director of The Iron Giant, and much of what some people find annoying about it thematically derives directly from that fact. What people find annoying about the story structure is vintage Lindelof. I'll cop to that part of it, not least because I absolutely agree with it.

That structure gets off to an inordinately rocky start, with one of the most damaging and irritating framework narratives I've seen in a long time. Damaging, because when it returns at the end of the movie, it sets up an implied relationship to those of us in the audience that Bird and Lindelof couldn't possibly have actually intended. Irritating, because it feels like a filmed improv exercise circling around the drain for endless agonising minutes, as two characters we'll eventually learn to be Frank Walker (George Clooney) and Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) bicker mindlessly about the right way to tell the story and the right place to start (and, incidentally, Frank's attitude in this scene also feels profoundly miscalculated given where it ends up arriving in the film's overall chronology). Eventually, they get out of this rut to open on the story of young Frank's (Thomas Robinson) experiences at the 1964 World's Fair in New York, where he introduced a semi-working jetpack to a glum fellow we'll later know as Nix (Hugh Laurie), and is invited by Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a girl about Frank's age, and despite her youth apparently an adviser to Nix. She's the one who gives Frank a pin that allows him access to a teleporter that takes him to a fantastical world of high technology, and then we trot ahead to 2015, our appetites having been presumably whetted.

Whetted, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, and Tomorrowland makes the strategically baffling decision to simultaneously align itself at an audience of children and their families, while also basing virtually all of its appeal on nostalgia for the Space Age - something that not merely the children, but even their parents are largely too young to possesses, except secondhand. And this is the element of the film that directly recalls The Iron Giant: the wholehearted belief that things were better when there was more optimism about the future and less terror, and the promise of space exploration made everything seem bright, shiny, and futuristic. This sits comfortably right next to the film's thesis that the biggest problem with contemporary life is that we've gotten tremendously good at identifying everything rotten, and then putting exactly no effort into fixing it. Which I think is entirely true, though the movie's somewhat pie-eyed idea for solving this human shortcoming largely through the power of wishing and reminding everybody how much we all used to want jet-packs is not entirely true. Maybe not even mostly true.

So the movie is in 2015, where we find Casey, a high schooler who has been instilled with the very same belief in choosing optimism over fatalism by her dad (Tim McGraw), a NASA engineer. Casey's gung-ho attitude is so pronounced, it brings her to the attention of Athena, who hasn't aged an hour since 1964, and who gives the older? younger? girl a pin that, when touched, transports her into a strange high-tech world full of, wouldn't you know, jet-packs and such other chrome-coated signs of mid-century futurism. And her tour of this world, once she figures out how to use the pin safely (when in Tomorrowland, for that is this place, she still interacts physically with the real world), is the film's outright highlight, a synthetic long take that moves through one of the most impressive CGI landscapes ever put into a movie, craning around to catch every last detail. It is the perfect cinematic mechanism to put us in the exact same place of dumbfounded awe and childlike excitement that Casey feels, and if that was the solitary triumph of Bird and cinematographer Claudio Miranda's work on this project, I wouldn't be able to reject the film outright.

It triggers a quest, and that's exactly where Tomorrowland collapses. It's not worth going into all of the movie's odds and ends as Casey and Athena hunt down angry grown-up Frank, and Casey learns the secret of Tomorrowland, a place where all of the most gifted geniuses of the 20th Century gathered to make the world a better, kinder place, until cynicism and hopelessness caused them to lock it away and watch it decay into a husk of its former self (it's an unambiguous though maybe unintentional parody and subversion of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged - the best and brightest hiding in a gulch, only here the geniuses are presented as moral failures because they refuse to freely share their knowledge and achievements with all of humanity. This has not prevented the film from being used as further evidence of Bird's crypto-Randianism by people with nothing more interesting to do with their lives than willfully misunderstand movies). The biggest flaw of the movie, in fact, is the fascination it has with those odds and ends, and the greedy way it dolls them out, piecemeal. It's the whole "mystery box" shtick that was pioneered by J.J. Abrams, mentor in different ways to both Lindelof and Bird, and it doesn't work in Tomorrowland at all.

The film is a punishing 130 minutes, and most of that is taken up with the endless second act, in which Casey drives from Florida to Texas to New York all while failing to learn things that could speed the film up considerably. That's not fair, actually. I mean, it absolutely is fair - the movie would be cleaner, faster, and more engaging if Athena and Frank would just fucking tell Casey what she eventually finds out. And we'd have a sense of the conflict sooner than 90 minutes into the movie, which would be nice, in this children's film from Disney. But it's not fair because the film also suffers from unneeded bloat: there's a trip to Paris that could be written out of the script with the barest amount of work, and several other moments that could be snugged up and shortened. The film could fly and get to the collapsing Tomorrowland well before the one-hour mark; instead it creeps and drags, with the heftiness of an epic but the simplicity of message movie for kids and parents to share. It's a terrible combination of flavors, and it makes a solid 40 minutes of the film seem to exist for no reason other than to keep the good parts as far separate as the filmmakers dared.

It's a pity that the script is so puffy, because a lot of Tomorrowland is really quite lovely: the design is terrific, Bird's adoration of mid-century science fiction is so palpable that it almost veers into self-parody (at one point, it does just that: there's a trip to a curiosity shop selling geek-friendly trinkets that's very little more than a delivery system for in-jokes), and the ingenuity of some of the setpieces both at the level of conception and visual execution is fun and playful. Clooney plays a snappish old man well enough, and Robertson and Cassidy are two absolutely indispensable discoveries - neither of them a "discovery" per se (it's not even Robertson's first leading role - she was in the Nicholas Sparks adaptation The Longest Ride earlier in 2015. Though I imagine that Tomorrowland probably shot first), but given exemplary showcase roles her that make a strong argument for how much we should all want to follow both actors in the future.

All of the ingredients of the film are there, and many parts of it are beguiling summer movie candy; it's just not a great story. The beginning I liked, even for all its saccharine sentiment; the end I liked, even for its contrivance and one hellaciously stretched-out death scene. The middle, though, is nothing but an endurance test. I'm not even sure that the middle is what there's the most of it, but God knows it feels that way, and that's exactly the problem.