If you recall, Pixar gave Disney's animation division such headaches that they finally bought the company. Now, they have the thankless job of trying to compete with themselves. The 2007 CGI release "Meet the Robinsons" is the latest project from the newly named Disney Animation Studios. I can't say I found it entirely original, entirely amusing, or entirely entertaining, but then I'm a fuddy-duddy adult. What I do know is that the film did well enough to earn almost $100,000,000 at the box office, which ain't too bad. Of course, during almost the same period, Pixar's "Ratatouille" took in more than twice that much, and I loved the film. So, even fuddy-duddy adults can like some animated features.
"Meet the Robinsons" is a movie with its heart in the right place and its computers heading off in all different directions. It's one of the most schizophrenic movies I've seen in a long while, going from sweet to sour and back again every two minutes. For me, it meant enjoying it one moment and hating it the next. If it hadn't been for the beautifully rendered CGI imagery, I probably would have given the film a 5/10 for its imbalance of the good and the awful, but I wound up adding one more point to the good because it I simply liked looking at it.
The 3-D CGI animation really is quite nice, very detailed and very dimensional. However, I wasn't overly fond of the stylized human figures, which tended to remind me of children's rubber dolls. You know, the kind you squeeze and they squeak. I suppose that was the point.
I also liked the film's moral messages, all about gaining confidence in oneself and developing self esteem, on the one hand, and needing and searching for family love on the other. If the movie had stuck with these elements instead of getting sidetracked into so many other areas, it might have been better off.
The story concerns a twelve-year-old boy named Lewis (voiced by Daniel Hanson and Jordan Fry), who is an orphan with an amazing mind. He's a genius inventor, even if none of his inventions quite work. Well, OK, none of his inventions work, most of them backfiring disastrously, but we can tell where he's headed. He's been living at an orphanage and raised by the orphanage's director, Mildred Duffy (Angela Bassett), since his real mother left him as a baby on the doorstep, and now that he's older he wants to find her. To this end, he builds a memory machine that he hopes will jog his remembrance of her, and then he'll look for her.
But life is never so easy. At a science fair where he's demonstrating the invention, a dastardly villain, known only as the Bowler Hat Guy (and voiced by the movie's director, Stephen J. Anderson), steals the machine. He's come all the way from the future to get it, but closely following him is a thirteen-year-old boy from the future, a boy named Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman), who is trying to stop him. In a plot with turns too complex to explain, Lewis and Wilbur go into the future, where we meet Wilbur's eccentric family, and the characters chase around endlessly.
What I failed to find in over half the movie was any sense of fun, magic, or wonder. There are plenty of gags, to be sure, and some cute touches like a group of singing frogs, but there are few real laughs; and while there are more characters than the story needs, none of them really grab you. Unlike a "Monsters, Inc.," for instance, or a "Toy Story," there is little to love in "Meet the Robinsons." Instead, we wind up merely appreciating the sights and occasionally being moved by the sentiment. I'm not even counting the two forgettable songs.
I didn't find any serious charisma in the voices of the characters, either; the film has no Eddie Murphy or Robin Williams to give it a boost. So we have to rely solely on the characterizations, and the only character to get our attention is the baddie, Bowler Hat Guy. He's drawn as an old-time movie villain, a Snidely Whiplash type, and his dumb antics are the best part of the picture. I mean, he's so dim-witted he takes orders from his hat, Doris. Clearly, the filmmakers made a conscious decision not to use too many big names for voices (although you'll find the aforementioned Angela Bassett as well as Tom Selleck in the cast) that might distract from the story, but the result leaves the movie rather listless.
Two other failings: The film changes tone too often and borrows too much from other movies. The fact is, the plot is all over the place. New characters come and go willy-nilly, seemingly for no other reason than to inject a little life into the proceedings, but almost none of them stick around long enough to make more than a brief and sometimes irritating impression. I had no idea where the whole middle part of the movie was going, nor did I care because I was almost snoozing by that time. The story line goes from being sweet to frenetic to sweet again to dark to sour to scary and then back to sweet. Frankly, I don't believe that if Uncle Walt were still around he would have approved of the very sourest parts.
Finally, there are all those borrowings. If they had just been affectionate homages to other movies, I could have accepted them, but the filmmakers seem to throw them in only to show adults how clever they can be, with most of the references assured to go right over the heads of children. For example, among many other things we've got the Robinson family and their robot from "Lost in Space," C3-PO from "Star Wars," Stan Laurel from Laurel and Hardy, the Gyro Captain from "The Road Warrior," the Tin Man and the Emerald City from "The Wizard of Oz," the aforementioned Whiplash character, the Dickensian orphan, an Ace Ventura hairdo, a Wednesday Addams clone, a city of the future that looks like something from the old "Tom Corbett, Space Cadet" series of the 1950s, and, most of all, a healthy dose of "The Jetsons." It goes on and on, as the filmmakers take this and that from other movies and TV shows, but for no particular purpose. Yeah, I know, it's supposed to be for the playfulness of it. But very little of it is as amusing as it should be, and most of it just takes up time.
"Meet the Robinsons" never seems to know when to stop. The credits list William Joyce as the author of the book upon which the filmmakers based the story and then nine other writers. What's more, in my colleague Jim Plath's interview with the director, we learn that the writers revised over 60% of the movie after its initial draft. Dang. I'd say that if these folks had attended to the other 40% as well, the film might have worked. As it is, the resultant movie looks seriously like a case of too many cooks in the kitchen.
Nothing to complain about here. It's a typically good-looking Disney product. There is a high-bit-rate, anamorphic widescreen picture that fills out a 1.78:1 television. There are very natural colors throughout, especially natural for a cartoon where you might expect bright, flashy hues. There are nicely detailed and delineated graphics, which ought to look even better in high def but look good enough in regular definition, too. There are fairly deep black levels. And there is virtually no grain or noise anywhere in sight.
It isn't until about a third of the way into the movie that the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio comes into its own. At that point, it displays a good dynamic thrust and impact, a deep, well-defined bass, and some well-placed surround sounds. Although I found the upper midrange a touch forward, it wasn't enough to spoil my listening enjoyment.
The extras include the usual suspects for a Disney disc. First, there's the audio commentary by the director, Stephen Anderson and others. Second, there are about seven minutes of deleted scenes, done up in incomplete fashion. Third, there are the featurettes: "Inventing the Robinsons," a seventeen-minute making-of segment, and "Keep Moving Forward: Inventions That Shaped the World," a little over six minutes. Fourth, there's a "Family Function 5000" game that quizzes the viewer on the movie characters' family relationships. And, fifth, there are two dreadful music videos: "Little Wonders," with Rob Thomas, and "Kids of the Future," with Jonas Brothers.
The bonuses conclude with twenty scene selections and a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at nine other Disney titles; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English captions for the hearing impaired. Oh, yes, and there is also an isolated 5.1 sound-effects track, for reasons that escape me.
"Meet the Robinsons" has enough high energy to power three or four animated films, yet its plot and characters are so far over the top and go off so many different ways, it's hard to keep track of any of it or, worse, even care about it. My guess is that most youngsters will find the movie too complicated to hold their attention, and most adults will find it too scattershot. I'm not sure where that leaves it, except that it contains several really pleasant messages, and it's lovely to look at. Now, if it had only ended about a half an hour sooner and left out a lot of its needlessly frenetic motion, maybe it could have gone out while it was ahead.