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Chrononauts: Wilber (left) takes Lewis to a goofy future.
Restless antics wear out our hopes for futuristic animation in 'Meet the Robinsons'
By Richard von Busack
SEEING THE BILLBOARDS and commercials for Disney's Meet the Robinsons was fun for one reason: you couldn't really tell what the movie was about. And then came time to see Meet the Robinsons, and I discovered that the people who made the film didn't know what it was about either. For starters, there is the bad omen of six credited writers, and the movie's motto, "Keep Moving Forward," informs to a fault a digitally animated cartoon that's mad with restlessness. Abandoned at the orphanage when he was a baby, Lewis has just completed a machine that will allow him to picture his thoughts, so that he can rummage up the forgotten image of his mother from his infant brain. A mysterious "Bowler Hat Guy" sabotages his machine. Lewis is ready to give up on inventing, but then he meets Wilbur, a visitor from the future who tells him that "Bowler Hat Guy" possesses a stolen time machine. All ripping stuff, and just what our children need; who knows when they might have to go in hot pursuit of an evil chrononaut. But the sci-fi theme gets mislaid when we head to an unnamed date in the future: a retro future, Tomorrowland-style, with wacky robots and bubble-machine transport devices.
With an audible crunch, Meet the Robinsons switches gears from Back to the Future to Frank Capra's You Can't Take it With You when Wilbur introduces Lewis to his family, a futuristic version of the Sycamores. They engage in elaborate food fights, make instant paintings and train a chorus line of singing frogs. The amphibians are based on the Rat Pack for some reason. There are at least 10 family members in all—an undifferentiated whirling blur that can't serve to benefit the story, though it is a gift for the toymakers.
Of the various styles this cartoon tries on and discards, the most interesting is the Tim Burton mode. Goob, Lewis' sad-sack roommate at the orphanage, is voiced by Matthew Josten. For a minute you're surprised to hear what sounds like a child's speech, complete with less than perfectly articulated words and hesitations coming from a Disney kid. (That's unusual today, if not a breakthrough; the Hubleys used the voices of their real-life children.)
The film suffers from a weariness-inducing anticness, worsened by big-screen animation's recent insistence on references instead of gags. Disney remains especially nervous around pop culture. As well it should be; a fray of subgenres, obscene jests and cool things can instantly become passé. Any wonder that Meet the Robinsons skews so safe and old? Or why children don't laugh when the movie references GoodFellas or Frank Sinatra? This cartoon seems paralyzed with a fear of going contemporary, even as it tries to make the aerial chases more dizzying than anything before. One aspect of Meet the Robinsons comes across as genuinely futuristic, and that's the 3-D process. You forget that you're watching an artificial effect, and there are no appreciable streaks, halos or strobing. Unfortunately, it does seem to be a side effect of the process that the color looks bleached and chalky. Since Disney prides itself on its restless technical innovation, maybe the company can get rid of those bugs.
Meet the Robinsons (G; 102 min.), directed by Stephen Anderson, written by Jon Bernstein, Robert L. Baird, Michelle Bochner, Daniel Gerson and Shirley Pierce, based on the book by William Joyce and with the voices of Daniel Hanson and Matthew Josten, opens March 30 valleywide.
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