Walt Disney Animation Studios may be the world’s most famous producer of animated features, but their history is one of peaks and plateaus. Though the post-Walt/pre-Renaissance era was their darkest age, Walt Disney Animation Studios entered another dry spell during the 2000s, which bridged the aforementioned Disney Renaissance of the 1990s and their modern resurgence of the 2010s that continues to this day. Outside of Lilo & Stitch, the Disney films of this period either had no staying power, or were downright terrible. Meet the Robinsons, Disney’s 2007 animated feature, can at least claim to fall under the former category. It was certainly a marked step-up from Disney’s previous animated feature (2005’s Chicken Little, more than likely Disney Animation’s all-time low point), and feels like a genuine effort on the studio’s part. Unfortunately, even with its charms, Meet the Robinsons falls well below what the studio is capable of.
Meet the Robinsons follows the story of an orphaned boy named Lewis (Daniel Hansen and Jordan Fry), a boy genius and would-be inventor hoping to find a family. He manages to invent a ‘memory scanner,’ which can uncover lost memories, in hopes of finding his birth mother. He brings the machine to his school’s science fair, and that’s where things get complicated.
A teenage boy named Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman), who claims to be from the future, shows up to the fair to warn Lewis that a man in a bowler hat – aptly labelled the ‘Bowler Hat Guy’ (Steve Anderson, the film’s director) – has stolen a time machine and is running amok in Lewis’ time. Unbeknownst to Lewis, Bowler Hat Guy has sabotaged his machine, which then wreaks havoc at the fair.
Losing confidence at yet another failed invention (one that could help him find his family, no less), Lewis becomes frustrated and decides to give up inventing. Wilbur returns to cheer Lewis up and to encourage him to continue his inventing. But a disheartened Lewis wants to hear none of it, and doesn’t buy that Wilbur is from the future. To prove himself, Wilbur takes Lewis to his future home via his time machine (one of two built by his father), where he introduces Lewis to his expansive and often bizarre family (while hiding the fact that Lewis is from the past). All the while, they try to find a way to recover the other, stolen time machine to prevent the Bowler Hat Guy from messing with the space-time continuum.
It’s a pretty wacky plot, and like any film that deals with time travel and isn’t Back to the Future, there are certain elements that really don’t make much sense when you think about them (in Back to the Future, the characters’ presence in the past altered historical events, while in every other movie, it seems the tampering with history somehow results in the creation of the events of their original timeline, which wouldn’t make sense unless they had been altered before, but differently). But Meet the Robinsons doesn’t take its time travel element as seriously as a lot of other movies, so I suppose the fact that things don’t always add up doesn’t matter too much in the greater context of the story.
The sad thing about Meet the Robinsons is that it actually feels like Disney made a solid effort to try to get things back on track after years of misfires (which is a big step up from Chicken Little, where I can’t imagine what the filmmakers were thinking). So it is a shame that Meet the Robinsons ultimately comes off as disappointing.
Though the plot can be fun and heartwarming, it just takes too long to get going, with a first act that feels like it came off a conveyor belt. And not all of the humor hits the mark (one member of the Robinson family is married to his hand puppet, which elicits more questions about his mental health than it does laughs).
Meet the Robinsons can also be kind of weird at times, which on one hand feels a little ahead of its time (just look at the surreal animated series that aired on TV a few years later, like Adventure Time or Regular Show), but in execution it stumbles, and feels more like the filmmakers were acting out of desperation to get a few extra laughs out of audiences. The Robinsons have an octopus monster for a butler, they have singing frogs as pets; and two members of the family live like potted plants at the family’s front door, each insisting guests ring the doorbell on their side of the door. I’m all for weird, especially in animation, which feels right at home with the surreal and strange. But again, Meet the Robinsons weirdness feels more thrown together – perhaps to make up for a lack of comedy in the writing – than it does imaginative.
The animation itself also seems uninspired. Though it’s not ugly, the character designs and animation are far from impressive. Usually, Disney movies – at the very least – stand out visually. But Meet the Robinsons only ever looks average.
By this point this is all sounding negative, but the truth is that Meet the Robinsons is a film I wish I could like more. It’s far from a total loss, with some solid voice work, and a strong improvement in story quality in the third act, including a pretty touching ending.
Long story short, Meet the Robinsons feels like a genuine effort, and I can appreciate it for that effort. Perhaps even the young audience that serves as the film’s target demographic can have a lot of fun with it. But when you consider that this is a Disney animated film, a canon that boasts more than their share of timeless classics that both older and younger audiences can appreciate, Meet the Robinsons comes off as a pale imitation.
The next year would see the release of Bolt, which served as another step forward for Disney, but it wouldn’t be until two years after Robinsons when the animation giant would really get their mojo back with The Princess and the Frog, which started a winning streak that continues today. Meet the Robinsons is thus one of Disney’s more forgotten animated films, but it’s certainly a lot better than many of Disney’s output that came before it, and may even win over some audiences. I mean, any film that names its villain ‘Bowler Hat Guy’ definitely has something going for it.