The Theory of Chaos

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - Meet the Robinsons

Full review behind the jump

Meet the Robinsons

: Stephen J. Anderson
: Screenplay by John Bernstein, Michelle Spitz, Don Hall, Nathan Greno, Aurian Redson, Joe Mateo, and Stephen J. Anderson, based on the book A Day With Wilbur Robinson by William Joyce
: Dorothy McKim
Featuring the Vocal Talents of
: Daniel Hansen, Jordan Fry, Wesley Singerman, Stephen J. Anderson, Ethan Sandler, Harland Williams, Nicole Sullivan, Laurie Metcalf, Adam West, Don Hall, Matthew Josten, Aurian Redson

One of the joys of the toy box growing up is that all the toys go in together. This mingling can inspire a child to repurpose them in ways far beyond their design. Meet the Robinsons, the first computer-animated release from Walt Disney Studios under the new regime headed by John Lasseter (whose own experience with toy boxes surely paved the way to the gig), remembers this, and thus treats us to such absurd explosions of child logic as a Tyrannosaurus Rex running along the top of a train. There are some of you out there who will not need explained to them why this is fantastic. This movie is meant for you.

The movie also remembers, truly remembers, the legacy of Walt Disney Studios, and as such effectively repudiates and buries the pandering “new era” Lasseter’s predecessors attempted to launch with the cheap and minor Chicken Little. While Disney’s computer-animation is still technologically a few years behind the curve set by Lasseter’s own Pixar Studios, it is catching up, the movie has a unified look and personality that is both bright and cheerful.

And as it crunches more digits, it’s also looking back to its forbearers. Before the feature, there’s a short. Not a new short, a vintage Disney cartoon from 1938 called Boat Builders, starring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy, with a cameo from Minnie. There’s no re-dubbing, no modern editing tricks, the soundtrack even has that warbling quality I remember. At first, the audience I was in seemed confused, thinking this was a set-up.

But as the short progressed, and Mickey struggled to follow the blueprints for his uncooperative boat, and Donald had an unfortunate encounter with a rudder, and Goofy fell deliriously in love with a mermaid figurehead, something sort of lovely happened. The kids started laughing. The adults followed not long after. Compared with Chicken Little, where I recall seeing a young child tune out of the movie and start staring at the wall behind him, this nearly seventy-year-old, hand-drawn short still has the power to charm. You just have to put it there and trust that Walt Disney’s original animators knew what they were doing.

There’s a quote from Walt himself featured prominently in Meet the Robinsons, which is on the frantic side, especially contrasted against the gentle pace of Boat Builders. But the essential elements that made Disney Studios a brand name were emotion and invention; and this movie remembers that enough to make for a pleasant time.

Our hero is Lewis (Daniel Hansen and Jordan Fry), a present-day orphan who keeps mistaking his adoption interviews for sales pitches at which he can demonstrate his latest contraption; such as a squirt gun which mixes peanut butter and jelly in sandwich-proper proportions. None of his inventions (or adoption interviews) go as planned, but it seems he is fated to one day get something right, because two visitors from the future are showing a keen interest in his school’s science fair.

One is the dastardly Bowler Hat Guy (co-writer/director Stephen J. Anderson), who has all the slinky steps and flagrant gesticulations of a classic melodrama villain, but in the brains department comes in a distant second to his hat. I felt a giggly delight seeing robotic spider legs unfold out of the hat so it could scuttle around causing mischief, Meet the Robinsons earns a lot of good will from such “why not?” juxtapositions.

The other visitor is Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman), a 13-year-old who has stolen the family time machine and uses it to whisk Lewis into the future so they can figure out what has gone wrong and how to set it right before Wilbur’s dad gets home. The future is Utopia on Pixie Sticks – people fly around in personal bubbles, “Insta-Buildings” come swirling up out of the ground, and everyone seems happy and empowered to pursue their eccentric whims. Wilbur’s Mom Frannie (Nicole Sullivan), for example, is “enhancing” frogs into big band musicians, complete with Rat Pack attitudes.

This techo-paradise is the creation of Wilbur’s father Cornelius Robinson, but now that future seems to be at risk because of Lewis’s science fair. He built a memory scanning device in the hopes of unearthing images in his brain of the mother who abandoned him – but Bowler Hat Guy wants to pass off the invention as his own and make a fortune. Only he doesn’t know how to make it work, so he pursues Lewis with whatever tools he can think might be useful – like the aforementioned T-Rex.

The Robinson family, an extended brood of inventors, eccentrics, robots, puppets, and an octopus butler, are like The Addams Family by way of Futurama, or the infectious anarchists of the Sycamore brood from You Can’t Take it With You thrust into Tomorrowland. There’s so many of them that the middle section of the movie, after patiently feeding us the loneliness of Lewis’ life, now ramps up to such a frenzied tap-dance pace of gags that I was left wanting more of the things I’d glimpsed that I really liked, like a pizza delivery man (Adam West) who goes about his duties like a superhero might, or a helper robot (Harland Williams), whose cheery voice belies a dreadfully low self-esteem. At one point, Bowler Hat Guy’s hat (whom he calls Doris), performs a feat which is as precious as it is alarming in its technological implications, and he stares, gape-jawed: “I didn’t even know you could DO that!” Much of the movie carries this quality, which is a double-edged sword, really.

Children should like the movie for its uninhibited silliness and the characters brought to life by a cast refreshingly non-glutted by movie stars. A brief sequence in a nightmare alternate future may be a bit much for them, combining as it does elements of both The Matrix and Night of the Living Dead. It certainly shows of the darker side of director Anderson and his animators’ imaginations, but even so it’s mounted with a certain zip that’s of a piece with the movie’s theme.

The theme is that you should keep moving forward and not dwell on failure. And yet Meet the Robinsons sometimes carries it to such an extreme that there’s an unintended ache indicated by its heedlessness. The future can be cause for hope and ambition, and this movie gives me hope and ambition for the new-new Disney Animation Studios. But moving forward can also be stubborn, used to suppress and disregard pain we don’t want to process. Sometimes I wondered if The Robinsons – with their perpetual dances, foodfights, and new wonders emerging from Dad’s lab – were really as happy as all that.


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