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Meet the Robinsons   B-

Walt Disney Pictures

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: G
Director: Stephen Anderson
Writers: Jon Bernstein, Michelle Spitz, Don Hall, Nathan Greno, Aurian Redson, Joe Mateo, Stephen Anderson (based on the book by William Joyce)
Cast: Daniel Hansen, Jordan Fry, Wesley Singerman, Angela Bassett, Tom Selleck, Harland Williams, Laurie Metcalf, Nicole Sullivan, Adam West, Ethan Sandler, Tom Kenney, Stephen John Anderson.

Review by Rob Vaux

Meet the Robinsons makes an easy punching bag for people who think Disney has lost its way in the past few years. Its sugar-addled palate is high on spectacle but low on plot, it embraces computer imagery with the zeal of Jim Jones, and its cast of wacky characters seems tailor-made for plenty of fire-and-forget merchandizing. It ain't Pinocchio, I'll give you that. Yet holding it to such standards, while certainly reasonable, overlooks what a cheerful and ebullient affair it turns out to be. Its sunny disposition never feels forced and its visuals are candy-coated and pleasant. Its story, involving an orphaned young genius and his encounter with a seriously warped family from the future, is full of snazzy imagery and slight but amusing gags. Everything about it is safe, dependable, and without malicious intent. Criticism comes easily, but dislike? Man, that'd just be mean.

The issues mainly come from the adult side of the brain, and many have shown up in previous Disney films. Take the notion of misfits, for example: a notion that (with the wonderful exception of Lilo and Stitch) the Magic Kingdom never really got the hang of. Through film after film -- some of them legitimate classics -- it clung to the concept that the quirky little outcast could truly belong if only the greater society recognized his or her special gifts. This makes the erroneous assumption that quirky little outcasts honestly care what the rest of the world thinks... which would negate the whole purpose of quirky little outcastdom. Being different, in Disney's view, means simply finding your place in the collective, ignoring the fact that most "different" people are perfectly happy marching to their own funky beat.

Meet the Robinsons puts a new spin on the fallacy without really transcending it. Its hero Lewis (voiced by Daniel Hansen and Jordan Fry) lives a lonely life in a present-day orphanage, where his knack for zany inventions has a way of scaring off any prospective foster parents. Director Stephen Anderson ostensibly presents him as someone unique -- someone nobody else can understand -- until a time machine driven by Boy of Tomorrow Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman) arrives on a mission of murky but inescapable importance. An evil villain named only the Bowler Hat Guy (voiced by Anderson himself) has designs on one of Lewis's inventions, which could threaten the future where Wilbur and his oddball family have built a happy life for themselves.

As narrative, it's serviceable, and Anderson delivers it in a bright landscape full of pretty cityscapes and art-deco inventions of the Buck Rogers variety. The characters are all similarly energetic -- especially the Robinsons themselves, who number nearly a dozen and who are differentiated more by their looks than by their behavior. Each one is a calculated eccentric, introduced in a lightning-fast montage of throwaway jokes amid the wondrous vistas of tomorrow. They're intended to give Lewis a place (or more accurately, a time) to belong -- as well as providing Bowler Hat Guy with a target -- but they number so many, and so thoroughly dominate the proceedings that they rob Lewis of his misfit status. Amid their bells and whistles, he doesn't feel like a square peg: just one more goofball amid the mob.

Furthermore, most of the supposedly "normal" characters -- such as Lewis' fellow orphan Goobs (Matthew Josten) or the various participants at the local science fair -- seem just as addled as the Robinsons, blurring the difference between the drab present that just isn't hip to folks like Lewis, and the wonderful future where he hopes to find his bliss. That blunts the thrust of the narrative, rendering Lewis' journey supremely perfunctory and (like too many Disney heroes before him) removing the iconoclasm that supposedly makes him so special.

Similar issues plague Meet the Robinsons throughout, though they're not always so obtuse. Not to put it too bluntly, but this movie dearly needs to take its Ritalin. It shoots from notion to notion at a seizure-inducing rate, whiplashing back and forth between the present, the past, the future, at least one alternate future, and every place in between. Kooky concepts pile on top of each other like a demolition derby: a swing band full of frogs infused with Rat Pack DNA, food fights performed with the bad vocal dubbing of '70s kung-fu flicks, robot butlers, mind-controlled dinosaurs, and that science fair packed with enough glorious weirdos to spook Charles Addams. Such chaos can likely be traced back to the film's small committee of screenwriters, each of whom apparently felt the need to add his or her own little ideas to an already jumbled stew. The fractured, schizophrenic results push the structure to the breaking point, threatening to upend Lewis' sweet (and relatively quiet) quest to find someone who appreciates him.

So why recommend the film, then? Because while this grab bag of ideas can be dizzying, none of them are really disagreeable. Each one more or less works in its own context: delivered with a reasonable amount of humor despite coming and going in an eyeblink. The characters remain cohesive, events follow a basic logic, and the script contains enough genuinely funny concepts to please most audience members. Anderson saves the choicest plum for himself, giving the gleefully sinister Bowler Hat Guy some priceless moments as he tries futilely to live up to the villainy he clearly feels destined for. (In this sense, the director mirrors fellow animator Brad Bird, who stole his own show as the voice of Edna Mode in The Incredibles.) Most of the other figures are similarly appealing and while we could probably do with fewer of them, none of them ever wear out their welcome.

The visuals, too, are worth a look: developed with care and holding all of the film's wildly different elements more or less together. Meet the Robinsons is available in 3-D in some theaters, and while I've never warmed to such gimmickry (I felt it ruined The Nightmare Before Christmas last fall), it fits quite well with this effort's goofy gadgets and retro-science. The surface is all that matters here, painting a pleasing picture that works just fine as long as you don't burrow too deeply beneath. It may mark the end of Disney's all-CGI experiment, and that's probably a good thing -- I wouldn't want too many more films like this out there. But it makes for decent company while it's here, and try as I might, I just can't help but enjoy it: too fluffy to hate, too friendly to condemn, and too sweetly bright not to smile just a little at its antics.

Review published 03.30.2007.

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