In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.
Between the release of Chicken Little and 2007's Meet the Robinsons, there was a massive overhaul in the upper ranks of Walt Disney Studios. CEO Michael Eisner was ousted and replaced by Bob Iger. Iger immediately set about trying to steer the company back on track in terms of quality family entertainment, a demographic in which Disney was always the undisputed powerhouse. However, in the previous decade, upstarts like DreamWorks and Pixar were frequently outperforming the feature work of the company. Iger decided one of the biggest means of keeping pace with the competition involved simply absorbing it and so in 2006, Walt Disney Studios purchased Pixar Animation for $7.4 billion. In so doing, Iger installed the Emeryville company's head John Lasseter, director of Toy Story and A Bug's Life, as the head of Disney Feature Animation.
Meet the Robinsons became a product of this transitional time and it is apparent in every single frame. The film was partially reworked with Lasseter's involvement and one can see his fingerprints in the film's early going, where we meet orphaned Lewis, a pie-in-the-sky science geek who is constantly dreaming up inventions in his shared room at the orphanage. The film tries valiantly at the outset to build an emotional connection with the audience, showing this boy's longing to find his unknown mother. One can almost see the Lasseter production notes floating by as Lewis sits on the roof, notching another mark in his wooden crate that tallies his failed adoption interviews. The heartstrings are tuned and ready to be plucked.
After a particularly destructive meeting wherein Lewis demonstrates his peanut butter-and-jelly gun to his prospective peanut-allergic parents, he settles on the idea of creating a device that digs into one's brain and uncovers long lost memories, namely the face of his mother, whom he only saw once as an infant when she dropped him off at the orphanage's door. He tinkers away and builds a prototype of the contraption which he plans to unveil at the school science fair. However, a mysterious new boy warns Lewis of a treacherous man in a bowler hat who will try to sabotage the project. Indeed the man succeeds in ruining the science fair and steals the device for his own personal gain. Lewis soon learns that both strangers are from the future. The child, Wilbur Robinson, takes a skeptical Lewis forward in time to prove it. There Lewis meets Wilbur's wacky family and a thunderingly obvious reveal about their relation to the orphan boy lurks around every corner. Meanwhile the behatted villain manages to ruin the future with his chicanery and it is up to Lewis to set things right. Along the way, he learns his worth and finds a surrogate family.
The character design in the film is resoundingly generic, although it is a significant step up from the atrociousness of Chicken Little. Many characters even resemble specific creations from children's entertainment of the past. The character of Wilbur looks like a cross between Japan's Astro Boy and Eddie Munster. Meanwhile the bowler hat guy recalls Dudley Do-Right's nemesis Snidely Whiplash and the tormentor of the Baudelaire orphans, Count Olaf. The animated depiction of the future metropolis is sufficiently sleek and shiny (set to a really great choral pop tune by composer Danny Elfman), while the alternate-timelined dystopia, full of bowler shaped factories and lifeless zombies, is expertly, horrifically conceived.
By far, the film's worst element is its approach to comedy which is broad and brackish. The filmmakers equate humor with manic energy and they subsequently turn everything up to eleven. The extended Robinson clan, which includes a robot and twins who live in planter boxes, are all completely, irrevocably bonkers. They are quirky to a fault and the middle portion of the film is exhaustingly spent in their crazed company. The goofiness is simply a series of unexpected events designed to substitute for actual jokes. This is best exemplified during a chase scene that involves an octopus being shot out of a cannon at a rampaging dinosaur. You know, just because. In fact, at one point Lewis, who has been disguised in a Carmen Miranda-type fruit hat, comments on yet another daft event by saying, "that was unexpected." Even the characters are non-plussed by the comedic efforts of the filmmakers.
There are two refrains repeated throughout Meet the Robinsons that seem to sum up the picture quite succinctly. The first is uttered by a series of animals mind-controlled by the villain, "I'm not sure how well this plan was thought through." This phrase rings in a viewers head after each increasingly wacky non-sequitur or abrupt tonal shift. The second phrase is Keep Moving Forward, which is the story's message, and could serve as a proxy rallying cry for the picture's production. If that previous joke or plot thread didn't work out, ignore it, something else will come along to distract the audience. In the movie, the slogan is hammered home so many times that the filmmakers even end up making fun of it in a bombastic fireworks-laden show-stopping production number. This sloganeering saturation does nothing more than dilute a truly important life lesson. This is a shame because the movie ends with a lovely quote which reveals the motto originated with Walt Disney himself:
"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."
Unfortunately, Meet the Robinsons does none of the maverick things a visionary of Walt Disney's caliber would strive for. The film assimilates its 3-D effects as nothing more than the gimmick it most always is. It throws gags at the screen with no rhyme, reason or wit. And the personalities onscreen are braying, brackish buffoons, shouting and jostling one another for a modicum of screentime. The film, like its protagonist, shows the glimmers of promise but fails many times before it achieves any sort of success.