Remember the scene in The Lion King where Timon says, "what do you want me to do–dress in drag and do the hula?" At some point, Disney's animated movies went from occasionally including a goofy, unexpected non-sequitor joke like that one to becoming all about them. Looking at Disney's recent computer-animated features, Chicken Little and now Meet the Robinsons, you'd think that the Genie from Aladdin was put in charge of scripting the gags. Fortunately, though, with Meet the Robinsons, the movie has an otherwise great story, genuinely sweet, emotional core, and plenty of other redeeming attributes that leave it a satisfying but flawed film with the rampant non-sequitor "jokes" merely being annoying hiccups along the way.
The "moral" of Meet the Robinsons is "Keep Moving Forward." You will be reminded of this phrase many times throughout the film to the point where you will almost stop caring, but it's actually quite a good message and how it plays into the lives of the main characters gives it a redeeming quality that justifies its repetition in the film.
The story's protagonist, 12-year-old orphan Lewis, is a kid obsessed with two things: 1) inventing and 2) finding out who his real mom was. He becomes so enwrapped in trying to uncover the mysteries of his past that he nearly gives up on his future. The villain, simply named "Bowler Hat Guy," is also obsessed with the past, to the point where it already has ruined his life. Thus the dangers of refusing to "keep moving forward" are presented quite clearly.
When Lewis starts getting too hung up on the past, a visitor from the future comes to rescue him. Wilbur Robinson whisks Lewis away in a time machine to the future where Lewis meets the rest of Wilbur's family, the titular Robinsons.
Now, I can understand what the filmmakers were going for here, but they missed the mark for me personally. The Robinsons are an odd clan of kid-like adults that are meant to come across as a family any kid would be excited to be a part of. The problem is that adults in the audience will be turned off to them almost immediately.
"Weird for the sake of weird" takes the place of "fun" here when one character has a woodchuck chewing on his sleeve for no apparent reason, characters pop put of a toilet when they are "lost" in the house, and dueling heads in a planter bicker over a doorbell-pushing contest's rules. At one point it's revealed that one of the Robinsons is married to a wooden puppet and somehow they have two human children together. How this works is never explained in the movie (or in the director's commentary) and is deeply frightening to me. Toss in a squid butler who can somehow survive without a drop of water around, and a wise-cracking robot that comes across as "Genie-lite," and it becomes obvious that while the filmmakers were going for "quirky" and "childlike" with the Robinsons; they end up with, well, "off-putting" and "stupid."
Even the few storypoints that involve the Robinsons don't seem to make a lot of sense. At the beginning of the film, Lewis invents a peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich-making machine that malfunctions. Later, while having dinner with the Robinsons he tries to fix their P.B. 'n' J. maker and ends up with the exact same malfunction. The Robinsons celebrate his failure by saying that through failure is the only way we learn anything. So…what exactly did Lewis learn from the first time his invention failed if the exact same thing happened the next time he tried to fix it in the future? If anything, this moment backfires in delivering its message by saying that this particular invention, even in the future, will never work even after numerous failures and lessons supposedly learned.
Whenever the Robinson family isn't stinking up the screen, however, Meet the Robinsons is actually a pretty neat film. Visually-striking, the film creates a cold and uncaring present-time with squared-off buildings that block out the sky and then contrasts that with a bold and bright future where the sky is always bright blue and buildings are rounded, dynamic and aesthetically pleasing.
The music in the film was a surprising treat. The score is a wonderful collection of musical candy courtesy of the amazing Danny Elfman. Some great songs from Rufus Wainwright, Rob Thomas, and the All-American Rejects round out the mix of what becomes a really great and appealing soundtrack.
While some of the "twists" the the film's storyline offers up are rather predictable, the story behind the Bowler Hat Guy remains interesting and unique in Disney's history. Without giving too much away, both the B.H.G. and his sidekick Doris end up a fresh twist on Disney's typical "evil bad guy and comical sidekick" formula.
The movie's emotional core really snuck up on me at the conclusion. I hadn't realized I had gotten so invested in wanting to see the characters find what they wanted until the closing montage actually got me to tear up a bit. The second time I watched the film it struck me even more so, proving that it wasn't just a fluke the first time around.
If you can get past all the Robinson family's non-sequitor-laden nonsense in the middle of the film, Meet the Robinsons is a worthwhile, enjoyable family film that just suffers from some dumb moments along the way. Like the saying goes, you can pick your friends but you can't pick your family, so I guess the movie is unfortunately stuck with its embarrassing Robinson clan, like it or not.
The DVD comes with a bevy of extras: from the usual behind-the-scenes documentaries and music videos to a trivia quiz that tests the viewer's recollection of the Robinsons' quirks. Most interesting, though, are the Deleted Scenes which provide a surprisingly insightful peek into the process of drastically improving upon a film by making minor tweeks to the story along the way.