Meet the Robinsons
Twelve years ago, Lewis' mother gave him up for adoption. Since then, he's met with one hundred and twenty-four prospective parents, and they've all decided he isn't the right fit for their family. Lewis, a brilliant kid with a talent for tinkering, invents a memory scanner to retrieve his earliest memories and find out why his mother gave him up. On the day of the science fair, the scanner is stolen, and a strange kid claiming to be from the future invites Lewis into his time machine to chase down the thief – a strange man in a bowler hat with his own nefarious plans for Lewis and his inventions.
The first time I saw this movie, I was not impressed. The animation was just so clunky and ugly that I couldn't look past it to the story. So let's deal with the appearance of the the characters first, so I can get it out of the way. The human figures look awful. Lewis looks like a vindictive soul super-glued a broom to the top of his head. Wilbur Robinson has impossibly tiny arms – when he shakes Lewis' hand in one scene his wrist is smaller than the kid who is both smaller and younger than him. The various members of the Robinson family are all grotesque in one way or another; one is grossly fat, another has a waist so tiny she ought to snap in half, and so on. But it isn't just their designs that irritate me; there's a stiffness in their movements that looks awkward and unnatural. It reminds me of early Pixar and the first Toy Story film. But the stiff movements of plastic toy soldiers can be forgiven and dismissed because, well, toys don't need to move like humans. When an animated human character moves like a toy, it looks cheap and rushed – especially since by 2007 animation studios were definitely capable of doing better.
It's also a very self-referential movie. I was surprised that it was based on a children's book (A Day with Wilbur Robinson by William Joyce) because it's one of the most Disneycentric movies I've ever seen. It takes the 1950s-era vision of “Tomorrowland” created by Walt Disney for this theme parks and creates a future that is bubbly, bright and plastic. Space Mountain even appears in the futuristic landscape, as does a sign proudly proclaiming “TODAYLAND”. At the end of the film, everything ties in neatly with a quote by Walt Disney – which it turns out, also inspired the family motto constantly repeated by every Robinson.
The overarching plot of the film isn't bad. A kid who likes to invent things creates something cool, it get stolen by a villain from the future, and the kid has to stop him without destroying the future or the past. That's a great idea for a movie, with plenty of adventure and even some strong emotional moments thanks to the fact that Lewis is desperate to find a family. But then there's a bizarre interlude in the middle of the story where Lewis just wanders around the Robinson funhouse, meeting Wilbur's aunts and uncles and extended relations. Each Robinson is a candidate for lunacy, although I believe the moviemakers were aiming for “delightfully quirky” when they created a man badgered by hand-puppet wife, an intergalactic pizza delivery man (Adam West), and a grandfather who wears his clothes backwards. The story just goes nowhere for a good twenty minutes. Then suddenly we're back to action and time travel and the movie gets good again, but it takes a while because all that momentum built up in the first act was wasted by this bizarre interlude.
There's something charming in the pathetic Bowler Hat Guy, a villain bent on revenge and personal profit. He's just so sad and inept and depressing. He's another character with problematic design – those spindly legs and arms poke out of a flour-sack torso and it's just incredibly strange – but he's so emotionally stunted and incapable of true harm that it somehow works. Plus, I have to give credit to Steve Anderson for giving the character a fantastic voice. He and Wilbur Robinson were the only characters in the whole movie who created real, believable personalities with their vocal performance. (Lewis almost managed it, but he spends so much time oohing and aahing that he honestly never develops much of a character.) When Bowler Hat Guy wanders off into the background toward the end of the movie, I kept wondering, “So what happened to him?”
But you know me – I like the villains and my Disney viewing pretty much revolves around them.
Meet the Robinsons is a movie that had potential, but seems to have gotten a little disoriented somewhere in the production process. There are some very funny jokes – tiny T-Rex arms and Tom Selleck references, anyone? - but there's also a lot of forced wackiness that might delight the little kids but doesn't add much for adult viewers.
I can't help but wonder what Disney planned to do if this movie was a success. (It wasn't, although I believe it did at least make back its production budget.) There are so many references to Tomorrowland I can't help but wonder – were there thoughts about a ride? Were these characters going to do Meet 'n' Greets in the park? Did they plan to revamp an older attraction like Innovations or Carousel of Progress with references to Meet the Robinsons? I guess we'll never know...
It was probably a four on the first viewing, but the movie did grow on me a little the second time around.