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"Meet the Robinsons" DVD: Near Miss for Disney Animation

by on October 23, 2007

Around here, however, we don’t
look backwards for very long.

We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and
doing new things, because we’re curious…
and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.

That quote from Walt Disney closes Meet the Robinsons, the latest feature film from the Disney Animation Studios. Even though the quote was discovered after the movie was well underway, “Keep Moving Forward” serves as a motto for the characters in Meet the Robinsons, a summation of the movie’s overall theme, and a rallying cry for the crew of the film. However, there are times when the movie seems to embrace the idea a bit too much, continuing to move forward when it would have been better to slow down to examine something a bit more thoroughly. The end result is a well-intentioned mess that is mostly enjoyable and certainly wins full points for effort and enthusiasm. It’s something like an over-eager puppy that runs through every trick trying to get a treat, and knocking over half your furniture in the process.

Lewis would turn this device to less wholesome purposes in collegeYoung Lewis is an orphan with a love of inventing things, even though his creations don’t always work the way he expects them to. After his 124th failed adoption interview, he commences work on a memory scanning device he hopes will let him remember his biological mother. However, when he is about to unveil the device at a science fair, he is suddenly accosted by a strange teenager named Wilbur Robinson. Claiming to be from the future, Wilbur tells Lewis to be on the lookout for the villainous Bowler Hat Guy, who appears shortly afterwards and is clearly up to no good. Before long, Lewis and Wilbur are sent hurtling into a shiny and utopian future, tasked with the perennial time-travel mandate of preserving the space-time continuum while dodging Bowler Hat Guy and his sinister sentient hat, Doris.

The orphan with an extraordinary ability is a staple of the fairy tales and myths that drive many of Disney’s movies, but Meet the Robinsons is the first that takes on the conflicting feelings that real orphans often feel. This provides the emotional core of the movie, and is virtually the only thing that distinguishes it from many recent and forgettable Disney animated films. Lewis’s frank discussions with Mildred, the orphanage’s kindly matron, have the ring of truth to them, no doubt due to the influence of director Stephen J. Anderson, who was an adopted child himself. Lewis’s frustration and burning desire to belong to a family are communicated efficiently and effectively, quickly earning our sympathies and putting something very real at stake. This achievement is even more remarkable when one considers that Lewis’s vocal performance had to be spliced together from two different voice actors due to Meet the Robinsons‘s rocky production.

That's a whole lotta Robinsons...Unfortunately, this turns out to be the movie’s only unqualified success. While the plot ultimately resolves itself in a charming and heartwarming way, it is also incredibly muddled and unnecessarily confusing, even for a time-travel story. The movie also refuses to sit still for very long, even though the few still moments yield some of the best scenes. We don’t get to actually meet the Robinsons until surprisingly late in the movie, and there are simply too many of them, none of whom gets enough screen time to make any kind of lasting impression. This is intended to show the freewheeling, devil-may-care attitude of the extended Robinson clan, but the result is that one can’t build much connection with or feel much concern for all but a few of them. Ultimately, the only grandfather Bud Robinson and mother Franny Robinson make much of an impression. If the audience connects with Bud, it’s only because he gets the most screen time behind Wilbur, but Franny’s depth can be credited largely to Nicole Sullivan’s warm performance. The rest of the half-dozen Robinson family members turn out to be little more than throwaway gags, and I wish you luck in remembering any of their names.

The same attention deficiency disorder also seems to infect the humor of the film. There seems to be nothing that the movie won’t try for a laugh. When the humor works, it works wonderfully. An early scene of Lewis inventing a peanut-butter-and-jelly spreading device while his sad sack roommate Goob rambles on about baseball communicates volumes about both characters and is also a great example of how humor can accumulate throughout a scene. Bowler Hat Guy, voiced by the director, easily gets some of the funniest lines of the film, and Doris joins Disney’s pantheon of wonderfully characterized inanimate objects. There’s also a terrifically underplayed bit when Bowler Hat Guy is nearly undone by a multi-tasking receptionist, and a mile-a-minute recap of the family sets up an inspired bit of stunt casting. However, too much of the humor falls flat, creating puzzlement rather than laughter. The stunt casting trick doesn’t get enough prominence to be really funny. The aforementioned PB&J gun serves up a punchline that’s telegraphed a mile away. There’s also a 70’s kung-fu movie parody inserted in the middle of the film that is simply baffling, and the Robinson who seems to be married to a ventriloquist’s dummy is just plain bizarre.

Look! The future IS just like the Jetsons!It’s also hard to shake the sense that Meet the Robinsons lifts most of its elements from other, better movies. The animation is at least Pixar-quality, both in terms of characterization and technical prowess, but most of the characters seem to have been modeled on the Incredibles; one might be forgiven for thinking that young Lewis was abandoned by Mrs. Incredible. A band of singing frogs owes a debt to Chuck Jones’s Michigan J. Frog, while many of the time-travel elements are cribbed from any number of science fiction films. Any humor from Uncle Art Robinson comes purely from the fact that he’s voiced by Adam West. And even though the Tyrannosaurus Rex that pops up near the end of the film is funny, his entire gag is stolen outright from a throwaway line from the first Toy Story movie.

Meet the Robinsons is often a frustrating movie because in many places a better film shines through. Despite its flaws, though, it is still enjoyable, and its enthusiasm and energy counterbalance a lot of its problems. It’s quite easy to re-watch the movie again to satisfy the urge to check if it cheated on any of the time-travel tricks. Much has been made of reports that 60% of the movie was gutted and redone at the last minute, and one wonders if these last-minute changes were the cause of the film’s messiness or if they saved it from being completely incoherent. Odds are that we’ll never know the real story behind the making of the movie for a long time, if ever. However, it is a step up from what Disney has been producing lately, suggesting that they are, in fact, moving forward.

As usual, the home video department has done an excellent job packaging the movie for its DVD release. The movie is presented in a razor-sharp anamorphic widescreen with a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. The feature-length commentary by director Stephen Anderson is informative and entertaining, although the sequences with the “special guest” are a little silly. We also get three deleted scenes (one of which is better than its replacement in the movie, in my opinion) and a decent featurette, which touches on the movie’s troubled history. There is also a diverting bit of fluff titled “Inventions that Shaped the World,” and the usual DVD game and music videos.

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