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Disney’s ‘Robinsons’ soaring to screen success

Erin McGinn | Wednesday, April 18, 2007

“Meet the Robinsons,” Walt Disney Animation’s final pre-Pixar purchase and computer-generated cartoon closes with a nod to the past, attributing the central motto of the film – “keep moving forward” – to Walt Disney himself. It’s a nice, nostalgic touch marking the studio’s new era under John Lasseter, the former head of Pixar, and an apt description of the plot. Despite a relatively simple storyline about an orphan in search of a family, the rather complex machinations keep pushing the narrative ahead so as to not allow too much time to dwell on the how or why.

The film is loosely based on the picture book “A Day with Wilbur Robinson” by William Joyce and directed by first-timer Stephen J. Anderson. While “Meet the Robinsons” doesn’t quite reach the high-standard of excellence established by such Pixar classics as “Toy Story” or “The Incredibles,” it still offers a great deal of heart and is an overall enjoyable film.

The protagonist of the film is a young boy named Lewis (Jordan Fry), a brainiac orphan and an attempted inventor. Abandoned by his mother as a baby, Lewis was raised under the care of Mildred (Angela Bassett) at an orphanage. His disastrously malfunctioning inventions, like the Peanut Better and Jelly Making Machine, hinder his attempts to be adopted by a loving family. As a result he invents the Memory Scanner, which he hopes will help him discover the whereabouts of his birth mother. When Lewis reveals his invention, however, it is stolen by a villain from the future, known only as the “Bowler Hat Guy” (voiced by director Anderson).

Enter Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman) who whisks Lewis into his time travel machine to retrieve the Memory Scanner from Bowler Hat Guy before he uses it to change to future according to his evil plans. Catapulted from his room at the orphanage into the bright retro-futuristic design marvel of “Todayland” (playing off of Disney World’s Tomorrowland) Lewis is ecstatic; the world of tomorrow has everything that he has ever dreamed of, including a potential family in the eccentric Robinson clan. But unless he can stop the Bowler Hat Guy, everything that Lewis loves about the future may disappear – including the Robinsons and their freewheeling household of singing frogs, worrywart robot Carl (Harland Williams) and a giant octopus butler.

The mania only increases in the third act, when the filmmakers must somehow wrap the story up while addressing the consequences of the characters’ time-traveling antics. It’s difficult to elaborate without giving too much away, but the developments stretch the bounds of believability, even for a cartoon. Particularly upsetting is the fate of Lewis’ baseball-loving roommate Goob, among the most endearing of animated characters, whose dark under-eye circles are presumably caused by sleep deprivation – but also suggest such other potential orphanhood troubles.

Co-starring the voices of Tom Selleck, Laurie Metcalf and Mad TV alum Nicole Sullivan, “Meet the Robinsons” zips merrily along, never overstaying its welcome. Per the family film narrative template, Lewis must learn some important life lessons over the course of his fantastic adventure, but the filmmakers thankfully hold the sappy homilies in check. It’s engaging rather than cloying, with more than enough plot twists, gags and one-liners to entertain all audience members.

In the end, only the most jaded viewers won’t enjoy leaping into the dazzling and ingeniously rendered future of “Meet the Robinsons.”