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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Meet the Robinsons Is Two Clicks Off of Being a Disney Classic

I love Disney movies (that may have been obvious already, not sure), and I love time travel movies (may not be as obvious), so I figured it was long overdo for me to revisit what remains to this day the only film in the Disney Animated Canon to tackle time travel, 2007's Meet the Robinsons.

The movie has kind of been forgotten, which maybe isn't too surprising; it did come out at a rather low point in Disney's history, after all, on the heels of a string of failures in the first few years of the millennium.* But, it came right before the turnaround that lead to the re-invigoration of the studio, where we find it today once again something of a juggernaut, and appropriately enough, contains a lot of very strong points in what's otherwise a solid but occasionally uneven movie.

*I don't feel like getting too into the nitty-gritty of each movie, but I feel like it's pretty safe to say the only unqualified success for the studio in the early 2000s was Lilo and Stitch. And while there were some good movies in that stretch that underperformed, I don't think I'll run into too much resistance in saying that the three films immediately preceding Meet the Robinsons, namely Chicken Little, Home on the Range, and Brother Bear, are all among Disney's weakest feature films.

Let's start at the positive: overall, Meet the Robinsons actually has a very strong core. Every narrative choice the script makes reinforces its main point and themes. Lewis's character arc, the inciting incident, the villain's plan and motivation, all incidental characters' development as well as some of the characterizations, the central plot elements of the movie, all of it ties together to reinforce the same ideas, namely to focus on the future no matter the challenges, stop worrying about the past, and so on. Those are some strong foundations. All of that may seems kind of simple, but Disney thrives on that sort of simple recursion of relatively universal themes driven home repeatedly and in a way that resonates. So on this end of things, at least, Meet the Robinsons holds up its end of the bargain pretty well.

Of course, it makes this central point explicitly clear (maybe overly so), but there's still a lot of other neat stuff going on under the hood (so to speak). There's the big overarching theme of family of course, which the movie is also pretty clear on. But there's a lot more there as well, and it's almost shocking how much was crammed into an hour and a half. There's Lewis coming to appreciate the value of the personal connections he draws when he feels worthless, learning that he's more than just his personal successes or failures.

There's also Lewis growing to respect others' agency just as he comes to accept the past as a fixed thing that he should focus on changing going forward rather than working to change retroactively. He goes from wondering what inspired his mother to give him up for adoption to respecting her choice to do so; just as the head of his orphanage said, she had her reasons for giving him up that had nothing to do with him as a person, and focusing on what he could do instead rather than seeing it as simple mistake to be corrected is an incredibly mature decision.* It's almost surprising to see a Disney movie that doesn't end with him connecting with her in some way. And finding this empathy for others, whether his mother, his son who has messed up (and set the plot in motion), or in his foe, and working with it and encouraging it (as the rest of his future family does to him in his hour of need) separates him from villain Bowler Hat Guy, whose schemes are repeatedly foiled by his failure to account for what his minions do or think.

*Director Stephen Anderson was adopted as a youth, and it shows from the nuance and depth the movie has on this issue. It feels likely this at least draws on his personal experiences in making this point.

Speaking of the Bowler Hat Guy, he's actually a strong addition to the Disney Villain Cannon (sure, he's not the "main" villain", but he's essentially "the face" for the film's Big Bad Duo, and it's telling that actual "main" villain Doris is for most of the film just his major distinguishing feature*). He's goofy and in an odd way endearing in his petty silliness and incompetency, and is easily the funniest character in the whole thing between some excellent physical comedy thanks to the animators and the best dialogue in the script. Stephen Anderson voiced the character, and may actually have the strongest acting in the cast, creating a voice that perfectly compliments what the movie was going for. While some people may prefer slightly more threatening villains, a strong, memorable, and thematically-important villain (with him basically mirroring protagonist Lewis in every way imaginable) is just as good, in my opinion.

*Which feels like it may be even more to unpack thematically, but not today.
There are more, small things I could mention. There are a few strong bit performances from pros like Angela Bassett and Tom Selleck. There are a number of clever and funny bits in the script. The design elements that make up the future are interesting in conception, at least.

But there are just a few things that take the movie down a peg or two, stopping it from entering into the pantheon of the true Disney Classics. And a lot of it is just the devil in the details, so to speak.

The design elements I alluded to are one such area. The animators basically went for a retro futuristic design with a few touches seemingly coming from the ideas of children's ideas of the future. It just...doesn't ever rise to the level of iconic that other animated films do in their worldbuilding. It kind of just feels like a regurgitation of generic 1950s sci-fi magazines rather than a lived in place, a backdrop rather than a real location.

And really, this is sort of the problem that carries over to the rest of the film. All of the distinguishing elements that could have put the whole thing over the top are instead just good enough. The animation is above average, but feels dated already just a decade later. Sure, technology moves quickly, but consider that at the same time that this was released, Pixar was releasing films like The Incredibles, Wall-E, Ratatouille -- shoot, even Cars, for the apathy that it gets in some circles, clearly had a lot of work put into giving it a clear, distinctive, and well thought-out feel -- and their art holds up much better. Meet the Robinsons feels especially forgettable in comparison to all of those.

Or the cast. We get over a dozen members of the Robinson family introduced to us rapid-fire, and they're all just sort of...there. The movie is incredibly brisk in its run-time, but there are ways to make the most out of introducing a large cast of unique characters in not a lot of time. There's a focus on unique designs, which helps at least keep them a little visually distinct, but we spend almost no time with any of the characters learning about them. We get a line or two for each, and they basically all wind up being "the quirky one" to varying degrees, which doesn't do much for establishing them in the audiences' minds. Paring it down to a smaller number and focusing on making that number even marginally deeper would have helped some.

Or relying on more shorthand could have helped. For example, one uncle is voiced by Adam West in his distinctive style that has become synonymous with "silly, showy heroism", and with a little design shorthand, it gives a much clearer impression of the character than most of the other relatives get, which in turn makes him slightly more memorable. It kind of shows that many of so many of the bit-parts came from the same few voice actors, and they all wind up kind of indistinguishable. It also doesn't help that so many of the extra lines that we do get go to robot butler Carl, who doesn't show himself to be much more interesting than any of the other individuals in the Robinson family even with the extra focus.

Either way, the movie kind of needs something like this. Lewis and Wilbur's actors are fine, but they're kids, and can't really turn in performances as strong as more mature and noted actors. Something like that would go a long way to help cover things up a little. On top of that, because we don't really get any depth from the family, it robs the movie of some chances for humor and momentum. The sequence to introduce all of the family doesn't really move things forward plot-wise, doesn't provide us with any especially-notable characters, and moves too quickly to get in any good comedy outside of a few small sight-gags, leaving it feeling overall just a little flat and perfunctory. Fleshing out characters more would go a long way in these regards, giving the second act a little more of a point (and possibly more humor overall from seeing more of the family members and how they bounce off of each other) and letting us enjoy experiencing it. Maybe a little extra time would have helped things (the movie feels almost breathless at times), but it was already a little on the long side for a Disney film of its time, and I feel confident that the time it already used could have instead been meted out a little more judiciously.

Even if there are disappointing elements to it, in the end, we got a solid movie, and that's not something to mourn. As the movie says, making mistakes and learning from them is important, and there's a lot in Meet the Robinsons to admire, appreciate, and learn from.

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