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Meet the Robinsons

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/02/07 15:12:30

"Family movie perfection."
5 stars (Awesome)

Keep moving forward.

Those are the optimistic words of Walt Disney, who inspired the imaginations of generations. They are also the words of Cornelius Robinson, an inventor whose imagination inspired an entire future in Disney Animation’s latest feature, “Meet the Robinsons.” (And may I commend the filmmakers on such a fine name choice.)

In one scene during the film, a young inventor named Lewis has traveled to the future and is dining with the Robinson family; the boy eagerly attempts to fix their peanut-butter-and-jelly-shooting contraption, only to end up with disaster: the entire room, family and all, covered in sandwich spreads. To which the family bursts out into cheers. “What a wonderful failure!” they shout, explaining to Lewis that we can never learn without trying, that failure teaches us so much more than any single success ever could.

How fantastic, this message of inspiration. In this age of instant fame and pushy ambition and winner-take-all, here is a film that tells us all, young and old, that messing up might just be what’s good for ya. (And when one character grows obsessed over losing a baseball game, it’s not that he lost that makes him a problem, it’s that he makes the loss the end of his world. Relax, the movie tells us, there’s always next time, so just have fun. Go ahead and lose!)

This is not the lone message of “Meet the Robinsons” - it’s just a small nugget in what is ultimately a grand celebration of the imagination at its most magnificent. Lewis is a character praised for being smart, bright, and optimistic, and soon he is taken from our time into a grand future where people travel by bubble, where frogs sing and dance, where hats come to life. The film uses William Joyce’s “A Day with Wilbur Robinson” as a launching pad. That book was a simple tour of a zany family, where an aunt played with a life-size train set and an uncle piloted a flying saucer.

For the film, it’s Lewis, not Wilbur, at the center of the action. Lewis is an orphan who longs for a chance to join a family, not realizing he has an extended family at the orphanage and at school. His adventure begins at the science fair, where the mysterious Bowler Hat Guy (a lanky chap with a waxy moustache on loan from Snidely Whiplash and a bowler hat that’s really a robot named Doris) sabotages his memory-reading machine. Lewis is rescued by Wilbur Robinson, who whisks him away to the future. Turns out Bowler Hat Guy stole one of only two time machines in existence, and is planning on stealing Lewis’ invention and passing it off as his own, all for sweet, sweet revenge (but on whom? and why? and how?).

Upon arriving in the future, Lewis encounters the Family Robinson - Grandpa wears his clothes backwards, Uncle Fritz has married a wooden puppet (that’s Aunt Petunia!), Uncle Gaston is a human cannonball, Lefty the Giant Octopus is their butler, and yes, there is a life-size train set.

It is here, as you may have guessed, that Lewis finds the family he’s always needed. And just as the film is not merely about inspiration and encouragement, it is also not merely the tale of a boy finding a home. There is adventure - oh, yes, there is plenty of adventure, some of it even including dinosaurs. And there is comedy - oh, yes, there is plenty of comedy, some of it even including dinosaurs.

The Bowler Hat Guy (flawlessly voiced by Steven J. Anderson, who also makes his directing debut here) is one of the most ingenious, most hilarious villains to grace the screen in many years, and his antics are the sort that make for pure comic genius. And the Robinsons are mighty funny as well, living in a universe all there own, the kind of anything-goes world that can best be described by saying that Adam West supplies the voice of the intergalactic pizza delivery superhero. (There is another bit of voice casting-as-punchline later in the film, a joke so sublime that I dare not ruin it here.)

As for the adventure, why, it’s far more involving and clever than one would ever expect from a kiddie picture. A good chunk of the finale uses the mechanics of time travel as a major device, and while sticklers might argue about the science of it all, it all makes for such breathtaking fantasy.

And yes, there’s even a sweetness to it all, with genuine emotion coming from every character and with honest care given to their development. “Robinsons” wraps with a note-perfect ending, full of joy and warmth and everything that’s right with this movie.

I watched “Robinsons” in the “Real D” 3-D process. The film works with or without the visual gimmick (the story is strong enough on its own, as is the bold, stylized animation - the 3-D is merely icing), but I wanted to mention this because this film marks the promised return of short features before the main attraction. Pixar’s been doing this for years now, and how the Pixar crew has brought the same spirit to Disney’s own output. The cartoon is a classic Donald Duck-vs.-Chip and Dale short from the 1950s, produced in 3-D. It still looks great, and you could feel the audience grin with appreciation the moment Donald’s face hit the screen. (Some viewers actually softly cheered!) In an age when pre-show attractions are limited to celebrity name scrambles and soft drink commercials, the return of the cartoon short is a real treat.

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