Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Heath Holland On...InDis(ney)pensable: Meet the Robinsons

by Heath Holland
Welcome to InDis(ney)pensable, where, from time to time, I’ll be taking an in-depth look at some of the real gems, both celebrated and underrated, of Disney’s massive catalog. In this installment, I’m taking a look at 2007’s time-traveling adventure Meet the Robinsons. Keep moving forward!

Meet the Robinsons is an unassuming little Disney movie from 2007 that doesn’t get enough credit for being totally awesome. The CGI-animated film is loosely adapted from William Joyce’s children’s book A Day with Wilbur Robinson. You may recognize William Joyce’s name as one of the directors of The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, an animated short film from a few years ago that scooped up a bunch of awards and made grown ups cry. Joyce’s stories celebrate wonder and the power of imagination, making them prime targets for adaptations into film.

Disney’s animated movies tend to follow a formula: a young protagonist experiences a tragedy and must conquer an obstacle that has appeared before them. This is almost always accomplished with the aid of a wise or magical being that shows the hero an inner strength that had heretofore been undiscovered. The conclusion occurs when the hero overcomes the obstacle and is transformed. It’s a time-tested recipe for success because the audience almost always responds to this storytelling blueprint. This is epic storytelling, and my, oh my, we love ourselves a good epic. Epics are everywhere these days, and if the conclusion to your film didn’t cost 100 million dollars and send 14 people to the hospital, it just wasn’t epic enough. This epic nonsense is getting out of hand. If anyone needs me, I’ll be on Neptune. Or, since this is a Disney column, Pluto.
That’s why I’m so happy that Meet the Robinsons throws most of that epic formula out. The hero’s journey is still there, but it’s been tweaked to the point that it isn’t really recognizable as the same blueprint that served as the frame for everything from Dumbo to The Lion King to Big Hero 6. This film doesn’t care about being epic; it has simpler aspirations, which is one of the reasons I connect with it so deeply. Everything has been stripped down in Meet the Robinsons, and it’s not so much about what happens as it is about the characters themselves.

The plot is light, but definitely not simple. Lewis is a 12-year-old boy who was left as a baby on the steps of an orphanage. He’s a science kid, and therefore doesn’t have much in common with his fellow classmates or potential foster parents. He’s not weird in the way that Tim Burton would portray him; he doesn’t wear all black and hang out in cafes. He’s just really distracted by the idea of inventing new things. Another boy, Wilbur Robinson, arrives from the future in a time machine (as one does) and warns Lewis to watch out for the dastardly Bowler Hat Guy, who is also from the future and has his own time machine. Bowler Hat Guy really doesn’t like Lewis for reasons we find out later, and he continues to attempt to wreak havoc using plans that really aren’t very well thought out. As Lewis travels into the future and meets the offbeat family of Robinsons, he learns some lessons about the nature of “normal” and discovers the rewards of personal achievement.

That description doesn’t really do the film justice at all, but it’s hard to encapsulate the narrative of the movie without a) spoiling it for people who haven’t seen it, and b) making it sound like something that it isn’t. At times, it almost feels like a dream. Things that you expect to pan out often don’t, and things that you thought were throwaways end up being important. It very much feels like the children’s book it is based on, but it’s been given an unmistakable dose of Disney.
If this movie has a spiritual sibling, I’d say it’s closest to 2011’s Winnie the Pooh, which is not a coincidence: Stephen J. Anderson directed both that film and this one. Here are a few more ways Meet the Robinsons strays from the current model: the movie does NOT have a single death, even off-screen. It doesn’t go for cheap sympathy by killing off a beloved character, and it doesn’t have to cheat by bringing that character back to life in order to win you over again. It has no toilet humor, doesn’t pander, doesn’t have double-entendres aimed at adults, and doesn’t assume an ironic stance. The bad guy isn’t particularly bad, and he also doesn’t factor into the plot as much as you’d expect. It’s 100% without cynicism. It embraces silliness, learning from failure, and marching to the beat of your own drum. Over and over again, it reminds us that what is most important in life is to let go of things that can’t be changed and always “keep moving forward.”

The voice cast is great, and not what you’d expect from a mainstream Disney animated film. Instead of trendy celebrities like Brad Pitt or Tina Fey, this film casts outside the box with Harland Williams, Angela Bassett, Tom Kenny (Spongebob Squarepants himself), Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne), Adam West, and Tom Selleck (woo!). The director even provides three voices himself, including one of the lead roles, Bowler Hat Guy. Fun fact: Bowler Hat Guy was offered to Jim Carrey, but the actor passed so that he could star in The Number 23 instead.

The kids in the movie are voiced by actual children, which is refreshing. There’s something about the kids being kids that drives home the themes of a movie like this and makes it feel so much less like a corporate product. I suppose it would be easy for detractors to dismiss this movie as kiddie fare because of the involvement of the younger cast. On the surface, this story is squarely aimed at the younger set. Like Winnie the Pooh, though, it holds up to multiple levels of interpretation, and watching Meet the Robinsons with some years under your belt is likely to lead to a deeper experience than your six-year old is will have. It doesn’t try to make you cry, but it does try to show you that there’s still some good left in the world.
The animation is beautiful. While it doesn’t hold up to something being produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios today, it’s still full of life with style to spare. The whole film feels like The Jetsons got put through a heavy art deco filter, and there are lots of retro buildings and vehicles that are completely devoid of straight lines and angles. The colors are deep and lush: the sky is impossibly blue and the grass is the greenest of greens. Bubbles fill the air, and you can see those old mid-century Disney predictions of the future alive on the screen. Think EPCOT, but even cooler. The city of the future even has Space Mountain as one of its buildings.

In a movie market populated by so much of the same, I celebrate this one for being different in an honest, inspiring way. As a father (here we go), I see an awful lot of stuff on TV and in the theater that bums me out these days. Most of the children-geared shows and films that my daughter watches have kids yelling and being smart alecks to their authority figures, usually accompanied by a relentless, churning hard rock guitar soundtrack. The goal of that stuff seems to be to entertain kids by filling their heads with as much sound and imagery as possible within the allotted time span. It’s the mental equivalent of dumping candy bars and soda down a toddler’s throat and then shaking them up.

That’s not this movie. Sure, Meet the Robinsons can be loud and obnoxious, and not everything lands the way it’s intended, but I can’t oversell how much this movie gets right. The current wave of Disney movies may inspire kids to pick up a pencil and draw their own comic strip, or to imagine that they’re a superhero, and that’s great. I was a superhero kid and I always will be; there is NO ONE who will defend superhero entertainment more than I will. But these newer movies have limits as to what they can inspire people to do. Meet the Robinsons isn’t about creating the next Captain America; it’s about creating the next Steve Jobs. When Lewis fails at an experiment in the movie, the Robinsons celebrate his failure because it taught him something and he’s now one step closer to success. Keep moving forward. No matter what happens and how many times you fail, keep moving forward and you’ll achieve what you set out to accomplish. The message feels corny and embarrassingly earnest in today’s culture, but that’s what makes it work; there aren’t very many people telling our kids this anymore. Hey, there aren’t enough people telling US that anymore.
There’s a quote at the end of the movie that I won’t spoil for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but it definitely hammers home the dreamer aspect, and it’s no coincidence that Meet the Robinsons feels like a love letter to Walt Disney himself. Entertainment today is a long way from where it was when Walt left us in 1966, but this movie picks up right where he left off. It’s full of the imaginative spirit that the best of Walt’s personal projects embodied so well. It’s worth mentioning that this movie was the first animated film to be produced after Pixar guru John Lasseter assumed leadership of Walt Disney Studios, and marked the beginning of a return to form for Disney after years in the wilderness with films like Home on the Range and Chicken Little.

Meet the Robinsons was well received critically and financially when it was released in 2007, but it quickly fell off the pop culture radar. It’s often dismissed by Disneyphiles because it deviates from marketable action heroes and princesses. Disney tried to cash in on its modest success, but there weren’t a ton of merchandise tie-ins for Meet the Robinsons. There was never a Meet the Robinsons Happy Meal at McDonalds, and there are no adorable characters to be rendered in plush. Movies like this are made, seen, and quickly placed on the shelf in favor of the new and shiny. Ironically, what made this movie so easy to dismiss in 2007 is the very reason I think it deserves to be revisited and embraced today. Dear Disney: all those epic stories you’ve made in the past are great, and I know there are more ahead on the horizon. A lot of them are going to be sequels to ideas that were once original. That’s okay, too. I know you have to make money, and I know that’s what a lot of people want to see. However, please remember the importance of thinking outside the box, pushing the creative limits, and don’t forget that thing you once said about moving forward. I think you were really on to something.


  1. Great column! I remember watching this on a lark and the ending really moved me. Such a nice, sweet movie.

  2. Fantastic article! This is a great film that I enjoyed when it was released. The diversity of the characters and set pieces is very creative and charming. It also has a great moral that is easy to pick up but isn't shoved in your face. Unfortunately it is incredibly overlooked and in some ways forgettable. I can remember several quotes from the movie but I forgot I even owned it until reading this.

  3. I'll be sitting with my kids to watch this tomorrow for sure. I really enjoyed reading this article!

    I agree about kids TV being a bit rubbish nowadays; although my girls have just discovered a show called Adventure Time and it's awesome.

  4. I'll be sitting with my kids to watch this tomorrow for sure. I really enjoyed reading this article!

    I agree about kids TV being a bit rubbish nowadays; although my girls have just discovered a show called Adventure Time and it's awesome.

    1. Awesome! Not all kids shows are terrible, but the worst offenders seem to come from Disney themselves. The live-action garbage on the Disney Channel feels like all the kids in the cast snorted cocaine before they rolled film. That's weird, since most Disney kids usually don't become drug addicts until at least the third year of their show.

  5. Oh yeah "Dog with a Blog"- possibly the dumbest idea for a show ever. In Disney Channels defense their animated output has been better with the new Mickey Mouse shorts as well as Gravity Falls and Star Wars Rebels.

    As for Meet the Robinsons, I like its intentions a bit more then its execution, as you said in the article Heath it does sidestep a lot of other Disney animated things. I think my biggest issue with the film was the lack of development on most of the supporting characters. It kind of gave me a X-men 3 vibe when I saw it (so many mutants! look how many we got in the same movie!) although not to the same negative feelings that Last Stand gave me.

    That being said I should probably give the film another shot with Brad Birds awesome looking Tomorrowland coming out soon.

    1. I can't praise those new Mickey Mouse shorts enough. I think they're the best use of those classic characters in years and years. I love that Disney releases them to Youtube so everyone can watch them, and I think they're absolutely hilarious.

      Star Wars Rebels is amazing.

  6. While Disney may receive a lot of criticism for scandalous race portrayals and imagery, there is no doubt that there are many positive effects films like tomorrowland have on children even today. I really admire them.