Film Review: Meet the Robinsons (2007)

*All reviews contain spoilers*
Disclaimer: This blog is purely recreational and not for profit. Any material, including images and/or video footage, is property of their respective companies, unless stated otherwise. The author claims no ownership of this material. The opinions expressed therein reflect those of the author and are not to be viewed as factual documentation. All screencaps are from Disneyscreencaps.com.

 

Cast
Stephen J. Anderson – Bowler Hat Guy, Grandpa Bud and Tallulah
Angela Bassett – Mildred
Paul Butcher – Stanley
Jessie Flower – Young Franny
John H. H. Ford – Mr. Harrington
Jordan Fry – Lewis (partial)
Nathan Greno – Lefty
Don Hall – Coach and Gaston (not that Gaston)
Daniel Hansen – Lewis (partial)
Kelly Hoover – Aunt Billie
Matthew Josten – Michael “Goob” Yagoobian
Tom Kenny – Mr. Willerstein
Joseph Mateo – T-Rex
Dara McGarry – Mrs. Harrington and Receptionist
Laurie Metcalf – Lucille Krunklehorn
Tracey Miller-Zarneke – Lizzy
Aurian Redson – Frankie
Chuck Riley – Narrator
Ethan Sandler – Doris, CEO, Spike, Dmitri, Laszlo, Fritz and Petunia
Tom Selleck – Cornelius
Wesley Singerman – Wilbur
Nicole Sullivan – Franny
Adam West – Uncle Art
Harland Williams – Carl
Joe Whyte – Reporter
Plus additional voices
Sources of InspirationA Day With Wilbur Robinson, an American picture book by William Joyce, 1990
Release Dates
March 23rd, 2007 in the UK (IMAX premiere)
March 30th, 2007 in the USA (American general release)
Run-time – 94 minutes
Directors – Stephen J. Anderson
Composers – Danny Elfman
Worldwide Gross – $169 million
Accolades – 1 win and 10 nominations


2007 in History

The US Congress elects Nancy Pelosi as the first female Speaker of House in the nation’s history
Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, introduces the original iPhone in San Francisco; it debuts worldwide that summer
Serbia is cleared of direct responsibility and complicity in the Bosnian genocide case by the International Court of Justice, but it also found guilty of failing to prevent it
The Prime Ministers of Latvia and Russia formally establish the border between the two nations with a treaty
A French TGV train sets the world speed record for a conventional train at 574.8 km/h (357.2 mph)
In the US, Seung-Hui Cho kills 32 people in the Virginia Tech shooting
One of the first potentially habitable extrasolar planets, Gliese 581c, is discovered in the constellation Libra
Riots by ethnic Russians occur across Estonia on Bronze Night, protesting the movement of the Bronze Soldier, a WWII memorial
After 80 years of schism, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Moscow Patriarchate reunite
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum makes one of the largest charitable donations in modern history, giving over ten billion US dollars to an educational foundation in Dubai
Europe is hit by a heatwave, which affects Greece particularly badly and results in 11 deaths
The Phoenix spacecraft sets out for Mars, to explore its north pole
The Vatican beatifies the 498 “Spanish Martyrs”, victims of religious persecution from the days of the Spanish Civil War
The remains of the two “missing” Romanov children are discovered, putting to rest the myth of Anastasia’s and Alexei’s possible survival
The Treaty of Lisbon is signed by the member states of the EU
Ex-Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is assassinated with 20 other people in Rawalpindi
Mwai Kibaki’s win in a general election in Kenya triggers a major crisis in the country which runs into the following year and results in over 1,000 deaths
Mauritania becomes the last country to criminalize slavery, finally making it illegal worldwide (hard to believe it took this long)
Births of Princess Ariane of the Netherlands, Princess Isabella of Denmark, Infanta Sofía of Spain and James, Viscount Severn


 

The mid-2000s were a truly challenging time for Disney, but 2007’s Meet the Robinsons is the last of the “dodgy” films before the studio began to get used to using computer animation. Like most of the other films from that time, there’s very little info on the production of this one – I do know that it started out as a live-action project, though, before being passed across to the animation department. It was originally going to be called A Day With Wilbur Robinson and went into production in 2004, with an intended release in 2006. Director Stephen J. Anderson actively sought to work on this project because he related deeply to its central plot; he had been adopted himself as a child and so had gone through a lot of the same feelings and questions that Lewis does (although Anderson was never in an orphanage).

It seems that production was progressing smoothly until 2006, when Disney underwent a major change with its purchase of Pixar. At that point, John Lasseter was made the new chief creative officer of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, and after he saw an early screening of this film, he recommended that Anderson rework the villain (who wasn’t threatening enough) along with a few other changes. His suggestions must have been quite extensive, because after ten months a whopping sixty percent of the film had been scrapped and redone from scratch – this included giving the villain a sidekick, adding a random dinosaur chase and completely remaking the ending (that last one was a wise decision, at least).

The film finally debuted a year late in 2007 to a lukewarm reception, but with Disney’s return to power a couple of years later at the dawn of the “New Revival” era, Meet the Robinsons ended up making little impact and is largely forgotten today. Interestingly, unlike its fellow mid-2000s rejects, this particular film seems to have a strong cult fan-base – seriously, people will defend the heck out of this film, so I’m a little nervous going into this one. Honestly, I’ll be straight up-front: I don’t like this film. It is better than the last two simply because the filmmakers were actually trying, but unfortunately I think they kind of missed the tone they were shooting for. The film as it is just feels rushed from start to finish, with a flimsiness to it that prevents me from getting really invested in any of the characters’ stories. Anywho, let’s get on with it (so glad we’re nearly out of this era).

 

Characters and Vocal Performances

In an unusual move, a large chunk of the cast were voiced by the director himself and Ethan Sandler. Since many of their characters interact, the two of them spent a lot of time in voice recording sessions together. Now, before we get into the break-down, I have to ask – what was it with Disney and character bloat at this time? It was a recurring problem and was definitely at its worst here (giving even Home on the Range a run for its money), with a flood of barely-developed characters stuffed in for the sake of cheap laughs. You can’t really go into much depth with anyone outside of Lewis, Wilbur and Goob, so I’ll focus mainly on them.

Lewis Robinson closeupIn the lead role of Lewis, Daniel Hansen was cast, but the crew encountered a common pitfall of recording with young boys when Hansen’s voice broke during production (Wilbur’s voice changes noticeably during the film, too). We’ve seen this before with characters like Arthur and Taran, and it can have disastrous effects on the performance if the situation isn’t handled well. Thankfully, it sounds like Hansen had managed to record most of Lewis’s dialogue before the change; when the crew needed to re-dub some parts after story changes later in production, they brought in Jordan Fry, who thus shares credit with Hansen for the role. You can’t really tell the difference unless you’re listening for it; the situation is more noticeable with Wilbur, whose voice actor Wesley Singerman apparently wasn’t replaced – you can clearly hear the difference in pitch at times.

So – Lewis. He’s our adorkable spiky-haired protagonist here, a young orphan whose birth mother gave him up as a baby. While Mildred, the owner of the orphanage, tries to find a family who will adopt the quirky youth, Lewis is focused on trying to make the world a better place with the power of his mind, creating all manner of weird and wonderful inventions to try and make routine tasks easier. I think this is the first time since Milo that we’ve had an unabashed nerd as our lead and it’s always good to see a smart character presented positively, although Lewis hasn’t been having much luck with his inventions when we first meet him. Like many intelligent people, he has a tendency to be obsessive about his work (it’s hard for Goob to break through this reverie to talk to him) and is also easily frustrated when his plans go awry, telling us that he’s a bit of a perfectionist.

 

Lewis moping on the roof

Due to his age and inexperience, such failures are to be expected, but they seem to cause him a lot of confidence issues – as the film progresses, he begins to doubt his own skills and has to be convinced to keep trying by Wilbur (who knows the dire consequences for the future should Lewis give up). Of course, Lewis’s self-esteem issues also stem from the repeated rejections he’s gone through at the orphanage, as family after family are put off by his… intensity… and refuse to adopt him. By the time of this film, he has become resigned and even a little cynical about his future, developing a new obsession with tracking down his birth mother in the belief that only she will ever want him.

After his latest invention fails at the science fair (due to the unknown interference of Doris), Lewis ends up meeting Wilbur, who promptly whisks him off into the future to try and fix a few things. Throughout the entire middle of the film, Lewis basically becomes Alice lost in Wonderland, which could explain why he’s not especially likeable during these parts – just like Alice, he’s the only sane man in a world of absolutely lunacy, and so he spends much of his screen time frustrated or annoyed with the crazy characters he meets.

Lewis scared in fruit hat

After going through a bit of emotional whiplash with the Robinsons, Lewis then succumbs to temptation from the Bowler Hat Guy and joins him, believing he’s going to finally meet his birth mother if he helps him. It just goes to show the lengths he’s willing to go to in order to find someone who’ll want him, although the moment might have held more power had Bowler Hat Guy been more menacing. Needless to say, Lewis ends up betrayed, but he eventually gets out of the jam by using his wits – realising that he invented Doris, the evil bowler hat, himself, he simply resolves never to invent her, thus ending her existence and restoring order to the future.

He then meets the future version of himself (who goes by the name Cornelius), and learns that his failed science fair project actually ended up being his first “real” invention, so he must fix it to allow the future to pan out the way it’s supposed to. (Time travel stories are always so confusing). He thus heads back to his own time, fixes things with Goob, and successfully demonstrates his invention to the science fair judges. Then, in a rather random plot move, one of the judges ends up adopting him with her husband – it may be a bit out of nowhere, but the film’s final scenes are beautifully handled and it’s great to see Lewis happy at last with the family he’s always longed for.

Cornelius Robinson

Lewis grows into Cornelius, the talented inventor who is regarded by many as the “founder of the future,” except that after fixing the situation with Goob and vowing never to invent Doris, there are no longer any jealous people from his past to torment him. The irony is that by time-travelling to the future and meeting his family decades too early, he lets them teach him his own mantra to “keep moving forward” and not focus on past mistakes. Cornelius then reinforces this message when he meets his own younger self, and notes that even after all he’s accomplished, he still considers the memory scanner to be his first real invention (no surprise there, considering the demonstration of it led him into the arms of his adoptive parents).

As a lead, Lewis is nowhere near as engaging as Lilo, Jim or even Kenai, but with these child protagonists I’m just happy when they’re not generic ciphers and Lewis is far from being one. He may be a bit whiny and irritating at times, but for the most part he’s quite easy to root for and it is good to see him achieve his dream at the end.

Wilbur Robinson closeup

Wilbur Robinson is the most prominently featured member of his massive family, a cocky thirteen-year-old (one year older than past-Lewis, as he carefully points out) who looks like a mini Danny Zuko and clearly thinks he’s far cooler than he is. Wilbur’s chief character trait is carelessness; it is his mistakes which kick off the whole plot, as we learn in flashbacks from the Bowler Hat Guy later in the film. After Wilbur leaves the garage door open, the Bowler Hat Guy is able to steal one of the Robinsons’ time machines and goes back to try and sabotage Lewis’s future by stealing his memory scanner from the science fair and passing it off as his own (because, in an obvious “twist,” Bowler Hat Guy is really Goob, Lewis’s old roommate from the orphanage). Knowing that the memory scanner has to be completed in order for the family to exist, Wilbur thus races back in time to try and convince Lewis not to give up on it, but the teen quickly gets in over his head when he ends up promising the lonely Lewis that he will take him back in time to meet his birth mother if he helps him fix the second time machine and catch the Bowler Hat Guy.

This aspect of Wilbur’s character makes him rather difficult to sympathise with; I know he’s in a desperate position, but really, who makes a promise like that to an orphan without ever intending to keep it? At least Wilbur does redeem himself before the end of the film by keeping his word and taking Lewis back – if he hadn’t, it would have been difficult to forgive him. It’s actually remarkably brave of him to follow through with this promise, because if Lewis had chosen to speak to his mother and perhaps convince her not to leave his baby self at the orphanage, Wilbur would likely be erased from existence. (Yeesh, time travel logic).

Wilbur is a fun character to watch, regardless of his bad decisions – he’s plucky, confident and energetic, and underneath his brash exterior it’s clear that he does come to see Lewis as a friend (at least until he learns Lewis is his father… yeah, this film goes full Star Wars at one point). Although the dynamic in their final scene feels a bit odd, with the older Wilbur addressing the younger Lewis as “dad” and such, it’s still a decent relationship.

Bowler Hat Guy

Teen Goob
I’m only including a shot of “teen Goob” because everyone thinks he’s hot

Goob as a child

 

The role of the Bowler Hat Guy was originally offered to Jim Carrey, who had to choose between this or the role of Walter Sparrow in The Number 23 (2007). He chose the latter, and so the director took on the role himself – the first time that a Disney villain has been played by the director of the film they’re in. The interesting thing about this character is that he’s presented as two very different ones – the younger Michael “Goob” Yagoobian, who is Lewis’s roommate, and the older “Bowler Hat Guy” who has become bent on getting revenge on Lewis for supposedly wrecking his life.

There’s a running theme with these three central characters – all of them are preoccupied with their pasts, when they need to learn to let go of their mistakes and “Keep moving forward” into the future. As a child sharing a room with Lewis at the orphanage, Goob is a sleepy but generally quite nice kid who helps Lewis out with his inventions and has a passion for baseball (two films in a row where baseball features heavily in the plot). The main issue Goob has with Lewis at this age is that he keeps him up every night with his obsessive nocturnal tinkering, leaving Goob in a kind of permanent insomniac trance (I really relate to this kid). At the start of the film, this leads Goob’s baseball team to lose a major game when the poor kid falls asleep towards the end.

As it turns out, Goob ends up literally becoming his own worst enemy when he comes back to the past in his adult form and convinces his younger self not to let this incident go, encouraging him to let his hatred for Lewis fester. Goob apparently takes this to heart, and after remaining angrily fixated on the lost game he winds up never getting adopted and left to his fate in the (randomly) abandoned orphanage. Once he’s grown up, he finally leaves the place to seek his revenge and meets “Doris,” a bowler hat contraption who turns out to be a rogue invention of Lewis’s. Both feel that their misfortunes are down to the eccentric inventor and team up to ruin his life, seizing an opportunity when Wilbur’s carelessness allows them to steal a time machine.

Bowler Hat Guy in baseball uniform

The adult Bowler Hat Guy is hilariously inept at his villainy and Doris is clearly the one in charge. Even with her coaching, he completely screws up his presentation of Lewis’s memory scanner after realising that he doesn’t know how it works and later utterly fails to work independently of her. The Bowler Hat Guy actually shares the same motivation as Wilbur; both of them want Lewis to fix the memory scanner for their own sakes, but whereas Wilbur is driven by the desire to protect his family and the future in general, Bowler Hat Guy simply wants to destroy Lewis’s happiness for the sake of his own.

The portrayal of this character is problematic because it’s so inconsistent. I can see why Lasseter recommended making some changes here, but the end result feels like its caught halfway between the two versions of the Bowler Hat Guy from the production process – on the one hand, he’s a bumbling incompetent reminiscent of Dr. Doofenschmirtz from Phineas and Ferb, incapable of causing any real harm to anyone and even seeming to doubt his evil intentions at times, but then in other scenes he’ll be almost sadistic, cackling with glee at the thought of bringing misery to a “poor little orphaned boy” and setting ravenous dinosaurs on the characters. It’s obvious the filmmakers couldn’t decide which way to go with him, but the result is a rather weak and forgettable villain who serves mainly as comic relief and doesn’t leave much of an impact on you once the film’s over.

Goob with couple at the end

Thankfully, Lewis makes sure to right the wrongs he’s caused his roommate by waking up Goob at the baseball game, leading to a win for his team and a happier life in which Goob does seem to get adopted (at least it’s implied, as we last see him happily chatting to an eager couple as Lewis leaves the orphanage). Presumably, this means the Bowler Hat Guy version of Goob never comes to exist.

Doris the Hat

“Doris,” the actual bowler hat, seems to have been worked in as a way of upping the stakes against Lewis by providing a genuine threat. Unlike her “master”, there’s no trace of incompetence with this character – after Lewis “rejects” her (really just quarantining her for being dangerous), she becomes hell-bent on getting revenge on him and turns into your typical “world domination” type of villain who seeks to mould the future in her own image. She works with the Bowler Hat Guy to bring her plans to fruition, struggling to cope with his repeated failures (you’ll have noticed by now how significant the theme of failure is here), but once they’ve successfully changed the future she then betrays him and casts him aside.

I did like the subtle ways the animators used to express her emotions; since a bowler hat obviously doesn’t offer a lot of potential for flexible “acting,” she was given a set of robotic arms similar to those of Doc Ock from the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films to allow her more range. However, as a villain, she’s just as awkward as Bowler Hat Guy himself – she’s too cartoony to be a serious threat of the sort Frollo was, but she’s also too silent and focused to fall into the fun and hammy scene-chewing category either. Her motivation feels too weak to be believable, and the fact that she is defeated by a quirk of time travel logic rather than a proper fight makes her even less memorable. As far as Disney villains go, Doris is certainly not one of their best.

Lucille Krunklehorn

Okay, now the remaining characters I can only spend a short time on because frankly, most of them aren’t given enough development to talk about in any detail. One of my favourites is Dr. Lucille Krunklehorn, who we first meet as a judge at Lewis’s science fair. She’s incredibly hyper and an inventor like Lewis; on the day of the fair, she reveals that she is testing a caffeine patch she designed and has not slept in eight days, explaining her crazy energy. I get that wacky characters like this aren’t always to everyone’s taste (honestly, I don’t tend to like the much myself), but Laurie Metcalf’s performance gives her a sense of warm friendliness which makes her easy to enjoy.

Older Lucille

We don’t find this out right away, but Lucille is also present throughout much of the rest of the film in a different form – she is Grandpa Bud’s wife in the Robinson family, a pink-haired eccentric old lady who isn’t given as much screen time but remains present for most of the future scenes. Lewis never figures out who she is during his time there, only working it out when he returns to the past to fix his memory scanner. Seeking a volunteer, he gets Lucille, and after using the device on her to recall memories of her wedding, Lewis (and the audience) realises who she is. The film then glosses over the following plot development – Lucille and her husband Bud decide to adopt Lewis out of nowhere, and that’s that, problem solved, everybody’s happy. It’s a bit weird, but at least it does make for a nice ending, and you’ve got to love Lucille for doing it.

Mildred of the orphanage

One other character I liked here was that of Mildred, the woman who runs the orphanage Lewis lives at. This is the first black woman in a Disney film for ten years (the Muses were the last) and I’m glad to see a little diversity in this otherwise totally white cast – after all, the style of the buildings suggests Lewis may be living in New York, and modern-day New York is a great setting to introduce some diversity without it feeling forced (Oliver & Company was populated mainly with animals, so it has something of an excuse). Mildred is a sweet and patient woman who is clearly fond of the children under her care, a nice change from the usual “evil orphanage lady” trope. She takes particular interest in Lewis as he is approaching his teens; both of them know that it will be much harder to get him adopted once he reaches that stage, so she works hard to get him adoption interviews and tries to “talk him up” to potential families. At the end of the film, she and Lewis also share a touching farewell after he finally finds a family of his own – you can see how happy she is for him and it makes for a lovely moment. Most of the credit goes to Angela Bassett for her gentle performance; she brings a lot of heart to this minor character and made her one of the highlights of the film for me.

Young FrannyFranny Robinson

Before I try to dissect the gigantic Robinson family, I feel I must state this one last time – there are far, far too many characters crammed into this film. Not counting Lewis, Wilbur or Lucille, there are still twelve more Robinsons to try and remember, but only Franny and Bud are given any real attention. Franny Robinson (née Framagucci) is the matriarch of the family, a sharp and witty mother to Wilbur and wife to Cornelius Robinson (making her the future wife of Lewis, weirdly enough). She has a mischievous and playful edge to her, but she’s also responsible enough to scold Wilbur for screwing everything up. Notably, she also generously offers to adopt Lewis after learning he has no family, and when Wilbur reveals who Lewis actually is she’s clearly deeply sorry to have to rescind her offer. (Perhaps she shouldn’t have made it so rashly; seriously, between her, Wilbur and Lucille, you get the feeling recklessness runs in the family). I quite like Franny, but once again, I have a few problems with how she’s presented.

The main one is that she is present as a child at the very science fair where Lewis meets Lucille, in a rather lazy coincidence. Seriously, what are the odds that she’d be there too? It’s like everybody Lewis will ever know just took it upon themselves to be at the science fair for convenience. And then of course you have the strange dynamics created once it’s revealed that Lewis is her future husband – there are moments that dance awkwardly around questions of incest as she and Lewis cringe over their growing mother-and-son bond and realise that Wilbur is their shared son. Of course, this is often a problem in time-travel stories (we all remember when Marty nearly slept with his own mother in Back to the Future), but it feels especially weird here in a Disney film.

Top Row: Art, Gaston and Tallulah. Middle Row: Spike and Dmitri, Laszlo and Joe. Bottom Row: Grandpa Bud, Fritz and Petunia, and Aunt Billie.

The remaining Robinsons are the following: first, we have Grandpa Bud, Lucille’s husband, who takes Lewis under his wing somewhat and offers a lot of comic relief. He apparently makes the decision with his wife to adopt Lewis when they meet him at the science fair, showing him to be a caring man (if not also a rash decision-maker). Then, we have Bud’s brothers, Fritz and Joe. Fritz is a nervous-looking bloke who apparently married a puppet called Petunia – don’t even try to make sense of this, it’s impossible. Somehow, this “marriage” produced two children, Tallulah (the orange-haired girl wearing a town for a hat) and Laszlo (in the goggles). The other brother, Joe, is the fat silent guy who married the Russian-accented Aunt Billie. The family also includes Franny’s two brothers, Art and Gaston – Uncle Art is the intergalactic pizza delivery man, and Gaston is… well, the other one, who looks a lot like Art. I can barely tell anyone apart, they’re given so few distinguishing characteristics. Finally, we have the twins, Spike and Dmitri, whose precise relationship to the others is unknown and who are purely there as comic relief (I totally forgot about them in the first draft). At least they didn’t also throw in Lucille’s siblings; she’s implied to have at least one sister in flashbacks, but we’ve already got more than enough to be getting on with.

The Robinsons basically function as a collective character, working as a team to do things and engaging in all sorts of comic hijinks. Uncle Art is alright and seems fond of Lewis, but I didn’t care for the character of Joe, who looks too young to be from the same generation as Bud and serves mainly as an extended “fat people are funny” gag. I’m sorry, but I really don’t have much more to say about these people – they’re just not given enough to do.

Carl the robot

Like all good futuristic families, the Robinsons also have a robot, in this case named Carl. Carl serves as a kind of servant to the family, but his primary task seems to be to keep Wilbur out of trouble – something he’s not very good at. For much of the film, Carl is basically Wilbur’s keeper-cum-sidekick, accompanying the lad on his time-travel adventures as they try to fix the messes Wilbur’s made. Towards the end, the two of them successfully rescue Lewis from the clutches of Doris and the Bowler Hat Guy, only for Doris to then brutally “murder” Carl by ripping through his chest with one of her pincers. Luckily for him, Lewis manages to restore the original timeline and Carl is thus resurrected for the finale, where he asks Lewis if he can beef up his design a bit in the future.

Carl fills the same basic role as B.E.N. did in Treasure Planet, albeit with a more deadpan and self-aware sense of humour. Two golden, humanoid, robotic sidekicks in less than ten years seems a tad excessive, but what can I say? There’s nothing really wrong with Carl – he’s about as memorable as the rest of the ocean of characters in this film. Physically, aside from B.E.N., I can also see a bit of Rodney Copperbottom and Rolie Polie Olie in there, too – robots were big that decade.

Frankie the Frog

The last character with any significant role in the plot is Frankie the frog, an anthropomorphic amphibian who is the leader of a jazz band at the Robinson household (for some reason) and who gets briefly sucked into Bowler Hat Guy’s plot to capture Lewis after the latter uses a miniature Doris as a form of mind control on him. I’m not really sure what the point of this character was… well, no, I am actually. I’d be willing to bet this guy was a last-minute addition to try and capitalise on the popularity of a similar character from DreamWorks’s 2006 feature Flushed Away: Le Frog.

Lefty the Octopus

On top of the already bulging main cast, we also have a slew of other minor characters to keep track of. There’s Lefty, a huge purple octopus (not a squid, apparently, even though he looks like one) who acts as a kind of doorman for the Robinsons. How does this guy survive out of water? The film certainly doesn’t want you to think about it.

Mr. Willerstein

Then we have Mr. Willerstein, a teacher at Lewis’s school who is clearly used to the boy’s zany inventions malfunctioning and is thus highly nervous around him at the science fair. Despite this, he’s also shown to be a fair and kindly person who’s willing to give Lewis a second chance at demonstrating his memory scanner.

The coach at Lewis's school

The absurdly buff coach also serves as a judge at the fair, and is implied to be more intelligent than he looks, noting wryly that he knows everyone thinks he isn’t paying attention to the proceedings. However, he’s mainly a traditional overbearing coach stereotype who sends one of the kids jogging around the gym for a minor transgression.

The fair also includes several of Lewis’s classmates, with the two most notable being Stanley and Lizzy. Stanley is the tubby kid who presents a papier-mâché volcano as his science project, only for it to fail to go off – he’s clearly committed to his aesthetic, as he’s turned up wearing a toga to make it clear this volcano is Vesuvius. Stanley was voiced by Dustin from Zoey 101, a fun fact for you. Then we have Lizzy, the hilariously deadpan “emo” girl who presents a colony of fire ants as her project with a sullen glare. Her inner rage is so obvious it makes Mr. Willerstein even more nervous than he already is.

Meet the Robinsons CEO

At one point, Bowler Hat Guy tries to present Lewis’s memory scanner to a CEO at a major company. You have to hand it to this guy; despite Bowler Hat Guy’s blatantly questionable qualifications, he does give him a fair chance and even seems interested in the scanner until he realises that Bowler Hat Guy can’t operate it. It’s surprising to see an executive character like this portrayed so sympathetically, but eventually, Bowler Hat Guy’s antics wear even this CEO’s patience thin and he has the buffoon chucked out.

The Harringtons

We also get to meet one of the potential adoptive couples that Lewis sees, the Harringtons. Although they seem like nice enough people, they’re visibly put off by Lewis’s intimidating vocabulary and obsessive nature, and things only deteriorate from there when the device he’s trying to demonstrate for them malfunctions and sprays Mr. Harrington with peanut butter. It turns out he has an allergy and he swells up like a balloon, putting an abrupt end to the interview as his wife storms out with him in tow.

Meet the Robinsons T-rex

Last but not least, we have one of the most random characters of all – a freaking T-Rex brought back from the past by Bowler Hat Guy in a misguided (and ridiculous) attempt to capture Lewis. All this really does is set off a pointless chase and fight scene which feels a lot like filler, but I suppose it does help to make the film more distinctive. Can you imagine how this part of the film was pitched? “Let’s toss in a T-Rex guys, that’ll please the kids! Who cares if the plot requires it or not? Dinosaurs are cool, folks!” After this plot fails (obviously), the Robinsons seem to “adopt” the T-Rex, as it remains with them in the climax. Yeesh, they’ll take anyone into that family!

 

Animation

Considering the film wasn’t even intended to be animated at all, it should consider itself lucky that it ever ended up in the canon in the first place. It must be kept in mind that this was only Disney’s second foray into full computer animation, so the results are still a bit plasticky and cheap-looking; they wouldn’t really find their feet with the technology until the next film.

There’s some good character work on offer here, particularly with the more limited ones like Doris, with a lot of expression packed into a few simple gestures. As you would expect in a film like this, we also get a variety of weird and wonderful inventions, all of which are nicely animated and intriguing to watch. However, one big problem I had with the animation in this one was with the designs of the characters, which felt very generic and cartoony; it caused problems with the Robinson family members in particular, many of whom I could barely distinguish from one another.

Doris with arms out 2Doris with arms out

The supervisors here included Nik Ranieri for Lewis, Dale Baer for Wilbur, Dick Zondag for Bowler Hat Guy (and Goob, presumably), Randy Haycock for Franny, Fritz, Petunia, Laszlo and Tallulah, Jason Anastas for Gaston, Ruben Aquino for Mildred and Mr. Willerstein (that explains why these two are so likeable), Darrin Butters and Eric Strand for Frankie the frog, Jay N. Davis for Doris and Little Doris, and Alex Mark for Cornelius.

I know this section is awfully short, but there aren’t any details available on the technology behind the animation for this film and when you’re discussing computer animation, that’s really all there is to talk about!

 

Plot

The strongest aspect of the story of Meet the Robinsons is undoubtedly the adoption subplot, which is engaging and sensitively handled (no doubt the director’s own experiences helped enormously in that regard). The scenes of Lewis at the orphanage, fretting about his failed adoption interviews and then finally getting to leave with a family of his own, are beautifully done and much better than the middle of the film – if only the whole thing could have had the emotional power of these parts!

Lewis hugs Mildred

I think the confusing plot is the main reason why I dislike this film, to be honest. It’s not that I have a problem with time-travel (I love Back to the Future), but it’s just so messily handled here that the film starts to feel contrived and ultimately, rather boring. Still, I won’t get bogged down in all the minutiae; after all, there probably isn’t a time-travel story in existence with no inconsistencies or paradoxes in it.

The other key problem with this one is that the pacing is insanely fast, rushing along from start to finish and leaving no time for anything to really sink in, creating a feeling of frivolous emotional detachment. It’s not a mean-spirited film like Chicken Little was, but I still couldn’t bring myself to care much about any of the characters because nothing in this world seemed to be of much consequence. You made a mistake? Oh, no matter, just go back in time and clean it all up. The bad guys are defeated by having the protagonist go back in time and change their pasts, making it all feel a bit anticlimactic. I know the filmmakers struggled a lot with the antagonists in this piece and unfortunately, I don’t think they fully succeeded in fixing the problem. The lack of genuine stakes turns the whole film into little more than a light-hearted romp, which might be nice enough to pass the time but fails to leave much of an impact beyond that. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a lighter Disney film and they don’t all have to be complex dramas, but for me, the comedy in this one didn’t work all that well either, so it’s left without a leg to stand on.

Keep Moving Forward slogan

I will say this for it though – it teaches a valuable message to the kids in the audience. With so many other family films focused on achievement, winning and fulfilment, it’s good to find one like this which tells you that it’s also fine to fail, because failures are lessons for the future and can lead to success if you persevere. Many of the characters in the film must learn to let go of their pasts so they can embrace their futures, promoting a healthy attitude which will serve kids well if they adopt it in their later lives.

 

Cinematography

After purchasing Pixar, the Disney Company wanted to ensure their own animation studio was kept distinct and recognisable, so this was the point at which they changed the name of their feature animation unit from “Walt Disney Feature Animation” to “Walt Disney Animation Studios.” Meet the Robinsons thus became the first canon film to use the studio’s current logo, which incorporates a clip from Steamboat Willie, Mickey Mouse’s first short with sound.

Meet the Robinsons scenery #1Meet the Robinsons scenery #2Meet the Robinsons scenery #3Meet the Robinsons scenery #4Meet the Robinsons scenery #5Meet the Robinsons scenery #6Meet the Robinsons scenery #7Meet the Robinsons scenery #8Meet the Robinsons scenery #9Meet the Robinsons scenery #10

Aesthetically, this is quite a pleasant film to look at and very child-friendly – the 2037 scenes are especially bright and colourful, with lots of rounded edges and soft shapes to create the impression of a happy, non-threatening world. The world of the future draws clear inspiration from the likes of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, but I could also see a strong resemblance to the world of Robot City from Blue Sky’s 2005 feature Robots. The “good” and “bad” scenes in the film are clearly distinguished by their colour palettes; when Lewis makes the deal with Bowler Hat Guy and accidentally ruins the future, or when he goes back in time to see his mother against everyone’s better judgement, the palette becomes dull and filled with ugly browns and yellows, with the settings obscured by rain or smog in rather heavy-handed mise-en-scene. There’s a particularly dark scene where Doris has the whole family under her control and they attack Lewis’s time machine like mindless zombies, it’s spookily atmospheric. However, when he’s in the “better” future (the one dominated by his inventions), the weather is sunny and clear, and everything is bright and bursting with loud reds and rich blues. One criticism I do have is with the backgrounds, which are often rather flat and empty, especially in the future – they look like screensavers at times.

The cinematography features a lot of visual gags, my favourite of which had to be the Tom Selleck reference – when asked by Lewis what his father looks like, Wilbur thinks for a moment before landing on the actor’s name and we cut to a shot of a painted canvas of Selleck (who is actually Cornelius’s voice actor). It’s just as random as the rest of the jokes, but it tickled me for some reason. That said, certain other visual jokes don’t make any sense and fall a bit flat; there’s a weird moment where Lewis and Grandpa Bud are trying to find the Robinsons’ garage and are looking for it in the neck of a turkey… what? Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t get it. And then there’s a whole “kung fu” style food fight shot like an overdramatic and badly-dubbed foreign film – don’t know what the point of that was, either. The thing is, I think a joke needs to have some kind of set-up, some basis in reality, some slight connection to something the viewer will relate to in order to be funny. Just throwing things at the wall in the hope that something will stick isn’t the most practical method for comedy, although it can work at times. Meet the Robinsons’ comedy is sure to suit some people’s tastes, but it’s not for me I’m afraid.

 

Soundtrack

For the second time running, we have a soundtrack consisting largely of non-diegetic pop music, although Meet the Robinsons has the advantage of featuring mostly original numbers. The songs here are supported by a decent score from Danny Elfman, which features recurring themes for Lewis and other characters that crop up in the more emotionally significant moments.

Another Believer imagery #1Another Believer imagery #2

The first song, Another Believer, is played over a montage of Lewis as he studies up to prepare his memory scanner for the science fair, seeing it as his ticket to finding out who his birth mother was. Written and performed by Rufus Wainwright, it has a laidback, dreamy sort of feel to it, vaguely reminiscent of the late Beatles work, but it sounds better outside of the film where you can really listen to it with no distractions.

Where Is Your Heart At image

Later, we get Where Is Your Heart At?, also written by Wainwright but performed this time by Aurian Redson as Frankie the frog’s singing voice. It has almost nothing to do with the plot; Lewis and Bud simply stumble upon Franny conducting everyone as they perform it and it’s never mentioned again, making it something of a “Big Lipped Alligator Moment,” but for all that, it’s a fun number. Personally, I prefer the soundtrack version by Jamie Cullum, his singing is pretty snazzy.

We also get another number from Frankie and covered by Cullum for the album called Give Me the Simple Life, which is actually a pre-existing song from 1945 written by Rube Bloom and Harry Ruby. Over the years, it has been covered by Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman and Julie London among others, but the version we get here is just as jumpin’ as theirs, even if it makes as little difference to the story as the previous frog song.

Over the film’s closing scenes of Lewis’s adoption, we then get this unexpectedly gorgeous piece called Little Wonders performed by Rob Thomas, which I chose as my tenth favourite end credits song in an earlier post (I know it’s technically not played over the credits, but it does lead into them). This heartfelt ballad is deeply moving and, for me, easily the film’s best song. It elevates the emotional impact of these final scenes to a whole new level, making me wish that the whole thing could have been as powerful. Perhaps Disney should have considered repeating their old “Phil Collins” technique and hiring Thomas as the main songwriter for the film’s music; it would have unified the songs and may well have resulted in an unforgettable soundtrack… but we can only dream. At least we did get this wonderful number to close the film on.

Meet the Robinsons title card

Over the credits, we get two songs – The Future Has Arrived by the All-American Rejects, which is a fairly standard pop song and nothing amazing (shame, I feel like they wasted this band), and The Motion Waltz (Emotional Commotion), another of Wainwright’s pieces, with a lilting lullaby-feel to it and a playful melody. The soundtrack also included two additional songs: Kids of the Future, a reworked version of Kim Wilde’s 1981 hit Kids of America by the Jonas Brothers, and There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, a 1964 Disney park standard performed here by They Might Be Giants. The former is very 2007, but it’s catchy enough and has a bit more bite to it than The Future Has Arrived; the latter was always a catchy tune and this version is fine, but having never been to Disneyland (oh, the shame of it) I must admit I hadn’t heard of it until now.

 

Final Verdict

Meet the Robinsons was the first film released by Walt Disney Animation Studios after the merger with Pixar, marking the dawn of a new era in Disney animation (although the actual “New Revival” era is usually agreed to have begun with The Princess and the Frog, two films later). With John Lasseter now in charge, Disney was set to finally claw itself out of the doldrums and return to its position as one of the top studios in the business.

During the film’s release, over six hundred theatres equipped with RealD 3D tech presented it in Disney Digital 3D, with the film preceded by a 1953 Chip ‘n Dale short (also in 3D) called Working for Peanuts. The end credits of the film, however, were presented largely in 2D, except for the names of those people who had converted the film into 3D (clever).

The film became only a mild hit financially, leaving most critics divided. Of all the animated films released that year, this came fourth in terms of gross, placing behind Pixar’s Ratatouille, DreamWorks’s Shrek the Third and Gracie Films/Fox’s The Simpsons Movie. By the end of the year, it had made its way to home media with a DVD and Blu-ray release – a new 3D Blu-ray followed in 2011. This was the first Disney canon film not to be released on VHS, a rather sad milestone for those of us who remember the format.

Naturally, DisneyToon Studios originally intended to make a sequel to this film, which was going to be called Meet the Robinsons 2: First Date (golly gee, I wonder what the plot of that would have been about?). Thank goodness John Lasseter got there when he did; he made it his first priority to stop this along with all other planned sequels, leaving DisneyToon Studios to begin their Disney Fairies line of films instead.

 

So that’s Meet the Robinsons for you. It’s light, sweet and rather forgettable for the most part, like eating a Kit-Kat. However, I have more sympathy for this film than the previous two – I think it was just a victim of mishandling and a troubled production, but you can tell that they tried, which is more than can be said for the others. Problems abound; it’s confusing, overcrowded, cheap-looking and awkwardly paced, but aside from all that, it does have a couple of genuinely touching moments which raise it up above the drivel which preceded it. If it fails, it does so for the same reasons Alice in Wonderland did; it’s simply too quick and zany to make any sense of. With all that said, I feel like many readers are going to hate me for giving this one a two out of five (the film seems to have a large and fiercely loyal cult fan-base), but I’m afraid I have to be honest – I’ve just never liked this one much. Still, Disney took their own advice and kept moving forward to bigger and better things, so at the end of the day, Meet the Robinsons didn’t do them too much harm and undoubtedly taught them a lot about what not to do the next time around.

Next week, we’ll be reaching Bolt and with it, the end of the Experimental Era. It’s been a very mixed bag, but I’ve truly enjoyed working my way through this odd little collection of films and even the worst ones were fun to pick apart. Mind you, I’m so glad we’re coming to the New Revival at last – finally, there’ll be things to praise again! See you again soon, and stay animated!

My Rating – 2/5

 

References
I consulted my own books to research for this review, as well as some standard web sources:
The Art of Walt Disney (2011 ed.) by Christopher Finch
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7862970 – credit for poster
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GaffPKZjFyY – a positive video review of the film by the Mysterious Mr Enter
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meet_the_Robinsons – Wiki page
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0396555/ – IMDB profile

Also, although I don’t own it myself, there is an art book available for this one from 2007; The Art of Meet the Robinsons by Tracey Miller-Zarneke (who also appears in the film).

 

10 Replies to “Film Review: Meet the Robinsons (2007)”

  1. You’re not alone in not being very fond of this film; I saw it a few years ago, and even though I kept my expectations low, I couldn’t help feeling underwhelmed. Like you, I could only really get invested in the portions that involved Lewis’ struggle to get adopted and trying to find out about his mother, as the rest of the film seems so ridiculously slapdash. That being said, one viewing was enough for me. (As an aside, I also viewed the film with the director’s commentary, and it included this gimmick of the commentary being “interrupted” at various points by Bowler Hat Guy. Ugh…)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad I’m not the only one, I got the feeling while preparing this that I’d be roasted alive for criticising it because it’s “underrated.” I think this one could have benefited greatly from a longer gestation period, the hunt-for-the-adoptive-mother bit would have been strong enough on its own without all the time travel schtick. I certainly won’t be going back to this in a hurry!
      (I hate when they do that interruption thing, it happened in the Hercules art book too)

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s