I’m so glad that a recurring theme in this Disney Canon Rewatch Project has been the surprising realization that many films I once dismissed are actually far better and more interesting than I thought. I’m not gonna lie, this project started out of a sense of nostalgia for the movies I watched as a young kid and the kind of completist desire that burns in every fan’s soul. Encountering the virtues that I missed as a child provides a deep relief of knowing my love and enjoyment of these movies has to do with more complex reasons that simple childhood nostalgia. Now, in the case of Meet the Robinsons, we have something different, a movie that I had never seen, yet had dismissed nonetheless.
I know that’s not a very fair and film-critic-minded thing to do, but after the huge disappointment that was Chicken Little was the straw that broke my camel’s back, as I surrendered and decided that, maybe, it was time to give up on Disney. And it might as well have been, except that someone at Disney too saw the tepid response to the Studio’s announcement that it would only produce computer-animated movies, and the release of the horrible first film that was supposed to streamline this era, and decided that maybe that wasn’t the way to go. The big triumph for Disney came when they finally managed to strike a deal with distributing-partner-but-also-rival-who-was-constantly-outgrossing-Disney, Pixar Animation Studios. Disney bought Pixar, gave a bunch of shares of the company to Steve Jobs and promoted John Lasseter to the highest creative position they could.
I haven’t been an unapologetic fan of Lasseter’s work as creative head of Disney, but his tenure started with just the right foot. The first thing he did was announcing that Disney would go back to hand-drawn animation with the release of The Frog Prince (which would be retitled The Princess and the Frog). That in and on itself was enough to make me warm up to Disney. A couple years after the announcement, when I went to see Bolt, I was surprised and glad to see Disney was doing good movies again. And yet, had I seen the movie released between Chicken Little and Bolt, a retro sci-fi adventure titled Meet the Robinsons, I would have regained my faith in Disney sooner. It turns out Meet the Robinsons was the first movie whose production overlaps with Lasseter being at the helm. I don’t know if it’s him, or director Stephen Anderson, or someone else that had something to do with the production that I have to thank, but I’m so grateful that Chicken Little was a one-off and the studio was back on track so quickly.
Back when this was released, I was living in Peru, so I don’t know how it might have gone down here in America, but the release strategy surrounding Meet the Robinsons was fairly muted. When it premiered, I had no idea that it was part of the official Disney Canon. It might as well have been one of those lackluster movies produced by an affiliated studio, like the unfortunate The Wild, so I discarded it as such. The critical reaction to the movie was similarly muted, and so, I never felt the need to watch Meet the Robinsons until doing this project. I find it somewhat outraging, but not entirely surprising, that in the seven years since its release, I didn’t hear anyone recommend or say anything especially positive about this movie. So if you excuse me, I will go ahead and say Meet the Robinsons is the most underrated movie in the Disney Canon. Now, that isn’t the same as saying it’s a great movie, but while it has some pretty big flaws, Meet the Robinsons has so much to offer. Let’s get into some of the details.
This is the story of an (you guessed it) orphan boy named Lewis, who also happens to have a very creative mind that makes him come up with crazy weird inventions that don’t usually work as well as he’d hope. This disastrous hobby of his is what keeps him from finding a couple that would warm up to him and adopt him. He decides that the way to go is to create a machine that would allow him to look at his deepest memories, and thus, will reveal the identity of his mother. It is during a school science fair in which Lewis plans to show his invention that he meets a boy named Wilbur Robinson, who not only claims to being from the future, but that Lewis must protect his faulty invention from being stolen by a creepy “Bowler Hat Guy”. That’s basically the premise of the movie, which could very well be divided into three segments. What I summarized in this paragraph would be the first segment, and also perhaps the weakest. Although it does a good job of setting up stuff that will pay off later in the movie, it also feels very familiar. Lewis is a typical children’s movie hero, and he is not all that fun or interesting.
It is worth to sit through this not-very-impressive beginning, and it’s not like it’s bad or anything. There is a lot to appreciate. First of all, you have the movie’s visuals. I didn’t write about this last week, but Chicken Little was a visual nightmare. From the art direction, to the character design and animation, it all looked cheap and amateurish. The animators must have gotten the hold of the computer software fast, because only two years later, Meet the Robinsons is remarkably slick. The art direction and character design, for example, are remarkable; inspired by Edward Hopper, Rube Goldberg and Walt Disney’s own Tomorrowland, to give an all-american, 1940s, retro-futurist vibe. The character animation is not quite there yet, which is to say some characters move better than others. Wilbur, for example, is a noticeable weak one, showing very uncanny and rigid movements.
The biggest thing that help me get through this first third of the movie, though, and one of my favorite aspects of the whole film, is the character named Goob. He is Lewis’s roommate at the orphanage. Very tiny, and sleep-deprived thanks to Lewis’s constant work on his inventions, he is a deadpan comedic highlight. The design of the character, with huge, tired eyes and a small body, as well as the way he moves and talks all work perfectly, giving us the idea that Goob is so tired he doesn’t even have the energy to really care about what happens around him. He might very well be my favorite character, if it wasn’t for our main villain, the Bowler Hat Guy (if you’ve seen the movie you’ll know this is a somewhat problematic statement, but I’m trying to write for people who haven’t). Apparently one of John Lasseter’s notes when he saw the first rough cut of Meet the Robinsons was that it needed a better, scarier villain. Well, Bowler Hat Guy is insane and grotesque as your Disney villains cat get. Just look at the bizarre magic that happens when he and Goob share a scene a together.
That scene comes in the middle of the film’s second third, which starts when Wilbur takes Lewis to the future so he would believe and help him. This whole middle section is basically just a bunch of weird stuff going on, as Lewis meets Wilbur’s family and the Bowler Hat Guy tries to pull off his plan. The pace becomes very frenetic as Lewis is introduced to the Robinsons, which are all a bunch of weirdos. There is the problem that the movie basically stops moving the plot forward in order to introduce all these characters and their crazy antics and go on full-on comedic mode. Not all the jokes work, but there are enough funny jokes (some are truly bizarre and creepy), that it all becomes fairly entertaining. The main attraction in this second third, at least for me, is Bowler Hat Guy. We spend a lot of time with him, and he is jut so creepy and funny. He seems very much inspired by Disney’s version of Captain Hook, emphasizing the pathetic and comedic over the genuinely threatening. If he is scary, it’s not because he seems like an evil mastermind, but because he looks and acts like a freaking crazy person.
The movie’s third, and final, segment is where it shows its heart and its emotional punch. While the story of Lewis is a relatively well executed, but overtly familiar plot for children’s movies, what ultimately happens with the villain, and Lewis’s implications in this situation end up being much more complex and interesting than I would’ve expected. The movie just didn’t surprise me because I had lowered expectations, it is actually good, and actually worth watching. It’s a far more interesting film that people give it credit for, and one that doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. Watch it, and start recommending it.
Next Week: Talking animals in an animated movie released in the 2000s? What a surprise… but hey, Disney does it very well with Bolt.