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Meet the Robinsons is the second and final computer animated film produced by Disney without the aid of Pixar and their team of creative geniuses. With the completion of Disney’s acquisition of Pixar, Lamp Jr.’s crew has moved in and taken over. Former Pixar head John Lasseter is now running Disney’s animation division, and he’s turned out the light on their CGI operations and shifted them back to traditional two-dimensional animation while the Pixar team handle’s Disney’s 3D CGI needs from now on. I’m telling you this not because I want to bore you to death (hopefully you haven’t already clicked to a more exciting, rocket-powered review), but because figuring out Meet the Robinsons means understanding where it’s coming from.
The film opens with a short: Disney’s first attempt at 3D, a 1953 Donald Duck cartoon that is, unsurprisingly, every bit as hilarious and amazing as it was back then. The movie ends with an inspiring quote from Walt Disney before the final credits, tying the film’s catchphrase “keep looking forward” directly to something Walt the innovator once said. I sense Lasseter’s hand here, it’s not the sort of thing Disney did before he came on board, and since taking over he’s made respecting the studio’s legacy a major priority. The film bookends itself with its place in Disney’s storied history, steeping itself in the lore of Uncle Walt. In doing that here they lend Robinsons an air of, well, importance that it wouldn’t have otherwise had. Somehow this makes the kids movie in between feel that much heftier.
Lasseter of course had much less to do with the film itself, since it was already nearing completion before he came on as executive producer. With the very forgettable results Disney has been achieving on their own in the animation field these past few years, it’s probably reasonable then not to expect much from Meet the Robinsons. Their first computer animated film Chicken Little had to do chin-ups to manage mediocre, and it had very little arms. But Robinsons is a surprise. It’s some of the best work Disney has done in at least a decade. It says and does all the right things to suck kids in, and does a pretty damn good job of fitting in a few solid, kid appropriate life lessons while it’s at it. They accomplish this not by a return to old school Disney form, but by simply going their own way with it. The movie doesn’t play out like a traditional Disney movie, it’s missing a lot of the usual Disney themes we’re all used to.
If you’re going to compare it to anything Disney has done, it’s probably closest to Emperor’s New Groove. It’s that kind of spastic, wacky weirdness. The script feels like it might have been written by hyper-active teenagers, and the humor is random and all over the map. It’s funny, in a completely bizarre way. Except where New Groove shot for and achieved a Disney version of the ultimate Bugs Bunny cartoon, Robinsons aims a little higher. They mix in wacky Hanna-Barbera inspired humor with a little brains and a lot of heart.
The story follows an orphan named Lewis, a high IQ type with a flair for invention. He’s having trouble getting adopted, and all of his inventions keep blowing up. But he’s an upbeat kid and he keeps moving forward. When things don’t go his way, he works harder, as if by throwing every bit of himself he can bend the world to his will. The inventions he comes up with aren’t very realistic, but as a kid Lewis is. Perhaps even more importantly, he’s a great role model for real kids, and the sort of character they’ll relate to without the need for a wacky, talking animal sidekick. Yep, no cutesy sidekick in this one. Ok, there is a robot but he’s only a minor part of the film. Thank bleep bop boop for that.
After suffering one really devastating disappointment Lewis finds himself embroiled in a mysterious plot involving a man in a bowler hat and a kid from the future. The kid from the future takes him home with him, where Lewis meets The Robinsons, a futuristic, non-traditional family which makes him long for the family he’s missing at home. Oh yeah, also there’s some sort of danger to the time stream. Lewis needs a flux capacitor, or something. The actual time plot doesn’t matter because the film’s mostly about Lewis’s journey as a character and making the audience flat out laugh. It does both of those things admirably.
Robinsons isn’t perfect. Visually it is something of a mixed bag. The animation is smooth and well done, but not necessarily as forward thinking as the film itself. The future for instance, looks like something built by the collision of Tyco truck and a Nerf super-bubble gun. The movie is bright, colorful, and full of interesting gadgets but sometimes almost too bright and too colorful. It’s clear that visually at least; the film is geared for very small children. Luckily, it benefits from being seen in 3D. The 3D version (using those new, cool polarized glasses) adds a lot of sheen to the picture and gives those somewhat childish future designs more depth.
The other real hiccup in the pic is how random the script gets. Sometimes that’s good, as I mentioned above it’s responsible for a good portion of the humor. But not always. A big chunk of the movie is spent in a crazed montage which seems to serve no other purpose in the movie than to wow the audience with lunatic gags and gadgets. It’s a lot of fun, and surprisingly funny, but so completely arbitrary that it will almost surely be a turn off for some adults.
Still, given Disney’s recent track record I think Meet the Robinsons is quite an achievement. What’s really perfect is that they made it happening by following the same advice they dish out in the film: Keep moving forward. Disney keeps moving forward. In the future, their computer animated movies will move forward with Pixar, but it’s nice to see that Disney’s crew managed to go out on a high note. Let’s hope they can apply this same kind of creativity to their future work on 2-D animation.