If you see only one movie about Doris the Evil Hat this year, make it Meet the Robinsons. Disney’s 46th animation feature recaptures the old Walt magic; it’s got spark, originality, and pure delight, qualities missing from the usual shallow, preachy kid fare recycling on DVD players today. (Some credit no doubt goes to Executive Producer John Lasseter, a founder of Pixar and now chief creative officer of both Pixar and Disney, whose mark is seen on such solid-gold films as Toy Story and The Incredibles.) If Disney can keep this kind of energy going, there could be a new golden age ahead.
Meet the Robinsons is a time-travel story, which means there are some tasty plot surprises — though perhaps too twisty for younger kids to follow. The story opens on a rainy night as a woman leaves a baby on the doorstep of an orphanage. We then meet him twelve years later as Lewis (voice by Daniel Hansen), a kid with a wheat field of upright yellow hair, who keeps so busy inventing gadgets that his low-key roommate, “Goob” (Matthew Josten) can’t get any sleep.
Lewis is determined to find his mother. The housemother, Mildred (sweetly voiced by Angela Bassett) cautions him that this is impossible: “But nobody ever saw her.” Lewis replies, “Wrong. I did.” He decides to invent a memory scanner, which can locate images stored in the mind and display them on a screen. He intends to recover his own memory of his mother’s face.
But one day while Lewis is working on the machine’s design, a boy appears and introduces himself as Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman). Wilbur insists that he has come from the future, and asks anxiously if Lewis has seen “a tall man in a bowler hat.” Lewis scoffs at this, and points out that the document Wilbur claims is his license as a “time cop” is actually a discount coupon for a tanning salon. But when Lewis takes his memory scanner to the science fair…
And that’s about where you have to stop trying to recount the plot of this movie, because it is going to go in some nutty directions. So I’ll just give a short list of the things I liked about the film, followed by a couple of cautions.
First, the title of the movie, combined with the tagline “Wait till you meet the family of the future,” made me roll my eyes. I figured this was going to be another one of those films (e.g., Over the Hedge or Open Season) where “family” is redefined as any group of critters who are fond of each other, so stop being so judgmental. No, “the family of the future” turns out to be built on the same general lines as the family of the past: mom and dad, grandmom and granddad, aunts and uncles, and identical twins Lazlo and Dmitri who wear sunglasses and live in the flower pots outside the front door. It’s a cheerfully unhinged family, recalling the Sycamore clan of You Can’t Take It With You. (Grandpa, for example, wears his clothes backwards, and when we first meet him is looking for his false teeth by digging holes all over the yard.) The Robinsons live in a vast and modern-in-the-Jetsons-sense mansion-planetarium, attended by their loyal butler, a giant purple octopus named Spike. The Robinson-family scenes can be so fast-paced that they’re chaotic, but in a good way; you know that there are lots of good jokes buried in there, that will make repeated viewing worthwhile.
The film gets good marks as well for its message. Kids’ films in recent decades have reduced their aim to a handful of simple, safe, predictable messages: Follow Your Dreams, Be Yourself, Everybody Needs a Family, Hug Your Teammates, Humiliate Bad Guys, and Don’t Be a Hater. (There seem to be some inescapable conflicts there, for example between “be a lone wolf” and “fit into a family,” or between “accept others” and “hate your enemies,” but I guess it doesn’t matter. These movies are only forming the way the next generation will view the world.)
The theme in Meet the Robinsons is Keep Moving Forward. Don’t hang onto resentments, don’t brood and blame, don’t let failure throw you — just pick yourself up and keep going. When a bad guy says, “Let’s see, take responsibility for my actions or blame you…Ding ding ding! Blame you!” we’re expected to get that that is a bad idea. Likewise, we see him moping in school hallways while kids greet him cheerfully and ask him to come over, but he says in gloomy voice-over, “Everybody hated me.” Any movie that combats victim-thinking and competitive grievance-counting gets my hearty approval.
Meet the Robinsons deserves applause as well for showing that a popular kids’ movie doesn’t have to include vomiting, defecation, and other body functions (I was going to say “see Open Season,” but I hope you won’t). And it’s refreshing that the film chose the best actors for the parts rather than prioritizing top-name, top-dollar stars and sculpting the images and story to fit. Voice talent is its own field, and when animated characters are too transparently representatives of famous folks, the wink and nudge unbalance the story. (Meet the Robinsons has some fun with that, with the graceful cooperation of Tom Selleck.)
What’s not to like? Well, as I said, with a plot analogous to Back to the Future, it will take some explaining for the littler kids. My six-year-old granddaughter found some sequences pretty frightening, especially toward the end. But the Snidely Whiplash bad guy is wonderfully stupid, and jots notes in a Pretty Ponies binder, and has a comb-over that swirls around his head like a vine climbing a tree, all of which temper his malignancy. (Doris the evil Bowler Hat is another matter.) And at the climactic moment there’s a great example of how to dismiss bad and scary imaginations: “I won’t ever invent you” makes it vanish like smoke.
In many theaters Meet the Robinsons is being screened in 3-D — a new process that uses glasses with plain gray lenses, not the old red/blue cardboard type from decades ago. Most of the time I forgot it was in 3-D, however; the effects are only noticeable when something comin’ right at ya, and then it’s very noticeable. I don’t think that the effect adds much to the film, though it was no doubt a very expensive extra. I like the idea of it, though — that filmgoers can not only watch but participate in a Jetsons-modern-type invention as they watch the story unfold. Meet the Robinsons combines the best of old and new, and will be a classic even when we’re old enough to go around the yard digging for our teeth.