Thursday, March 29, 2007
You could feel the instant history being written about Disney’s in-house computer animation division even before Chicken Little made its way into theaters a couple of years ago. It was all really just a negotiation tactic, the narrative would read. The protracted talks with Pixar over continuing a distribution relationship with Disney were simply a combination back-up plan/leverage tool, but never, of course, a serious artistic enterprise. And with Pixar now safely back in the fold for the foreseeable future, the non-Pixar features era would be looked upon as some vaguely embarrassing footnote, like the Coy and Vance episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard.
Pixar continues to be the gold standard for the feature-animation form they pioneered, but it would be a shame if something like Meet the Robinsons were dismissed as the stuff we have to accept while we’re waiting for Pixar’s Ratatouille. You take the small pleasures you find in cinema, and in Meet the Robinsons, there’s pleasure to be found in an unexpected place: the film’s ostensible “villain.”
As for the hero, he’s 12-year-old Lewis, a spiky-haired kid with a penchant for wild inventions. And in a way he’s about the most generic kind of Disney protagonist—an orphan, and an actual living-in-an-orphanage-orphan at that. He’s so generic that two different young actors—Daniel Hansen and Jordan Fry—tag-team on the vocal performance with no discernible distinction between the two.
The adventure begins at a school science fair, where Lewis’ latest project—a gizmo to retrieve memories from your sub conscious—wreaks unintentional havoc. Young Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman) appears to tell Lewis that a) Wilbur is from the future; b) Lewis’ invention was sabotaged; and c) it’s all part of a plot by the mysterious Bowler Hat Guy (director Stephen Anderson) to change the course of history.
The future to which Wilbur eventually takes Lewis is a candy-colored utopia so effervescent that people literally travel in bubbles. It’s all loosely patterned after the William Joyce book A Day With Wilbur Robinson—the only real link to the source material being Wilbur’s eccentric family members—frantic—but not nearly as frantic as the Joyce-inspired Robots. It’s also not as obsessed with bodily functions as Robots, or indeed as pretty much any other recent kid-flick you can name. How rare to find a family film without a single moment you’d be ashamed to have your kid repeating in school the next day.
But the real pleasure for adults may come from the oddly appealing Bowler Hat Guy. In terms of simple character design, he’s a delight—a blast from the vaudeville past with his handlebar moustache and cape-shrouded shoulders. Yet the spiral comb-over that tops his head—as well as the pony-decorated binder in which he keeps his checklist for world domination—hints at the pathetic guy hidden beneath his robotic hat. Quite simply, he’s a buffoon, utterly incapable of doing anything right without his sinister headwear running the show. Cartoons have given their bad guys psychological back-story before, but Bowler Hat Guy feels like a new, strangely mature creation—someone whose insistence on blaming his fate on external forces makes him an easy target for manipulation.
There’s some fairly intense stuff going on once the bowler hat itself is exposed as the real evil brains of the operation, including a vision of a bleak alternate reality that’s like a haberdasher’s nightmare of The Matrix. Younger kids might get a little creeped out by the gloom, if they’re not already jumping out of their skins at the 3-D effects. But the solid, energetically-staged story seems designed mostly for older kids—and maybe for their parents, who recall that dark undercurrents have been part of the Disney universe since the witch offered Snow White an apple, and long before Woody and Buzz were a twinkle in Pixar’s eye.
MEET THE ROBINSONS ( * * * )
Directed by Stephen Anderson. • Starring the voices of Wesley Singerman, Stephen Anderson and Harland Williams. • G, 102 min. • At the Century Cinemas Del Monte Center, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.