Thursday, March 28, 2013

Movies I love more than anyone else: Meet the Robinsons.

 This is the next entry of a reoccurring feature of sorts, spotlighting the movies that aren't just my favorites, but films that I probably hold in higher esteem than anyone else out there in the critical community.  Next up is a film that celebrates its sixth-anniversary this Saturday.  But I saw it six years ago today at a press screening.  No, I'm not talking about Blades of Glory, but the inexplicably wonderful Meet the Robinsons. I walked into said press screening for this one knowing almost nothing about it, save for a few pieces of promotional art and something about musical 'wiseguy' frogs.  I distinctly remember walking out of the press screening, my eyes more than a little watery, and immediately calling my wife to inform her that I had just wasted a Wednesday afternoon. I had just seen something truly special and she was going to have to accompany me for a repeat viewing as soon as possible.

It was that kind of remarkable discovery, a completely unexpected masterpiece during a time when Disney animation of the non-Pixar variety had fallen into a bit of a rut.  Six years later, it is perhaps my favorite film of the prior decade and in a just world would stand alongside the Katzenberg Waking Sleeping Beauty era as one of Disney's modern crown jewels.  At the time, what stood out about Meet the Robinsons was how unassuming it was.  It was not a fairy-tale story, it was not a talking animal comedy, and it was not a would-be animated epic of any kind.  The closest thing to a celebrity voice was Angela Bassett and Adam West in supporting roles, with the rest of the characters voiced by actual voice over artists.  It was a somewhat under-the-radar release, the "Disney output" contrasted with the far more prestigious Pixar film from that year, Ratatouille.  Like the Pixar films of the era, it concerns someone who yearns to live dangerously even when merely existing would bring less strife.

Its tale of a young orphan scientist is at its core a human drama, rooted in the need to be loved by someone... anyone, and the need to belong.  It spins a dizzying time-travel adventure and introduces an entire futuristic family of pointedly wacky but utterly grounded human beings.  It earns solid laughs both through character interaction (young "Goob"'s encounter with the evil Bowler Hat Guy is kinda wonderful) and through attempting to apply logic to its farcical scenarios ("But I don't need a duck...").  If the middle act contains most of the frantic action, the first act unblinkingly looks at the pain of orphan-hood and the third act is all about the therapeutic power of forgiveness.  Once all is revealed, the Bowler Hat Guy, introduced as the clownish villain (voiced by director Stephen  J. Anderson), becomes the most sympathetic character in the film, a bitter man who cannot let go of a perceived wrong committed many years ago.  Without going into details, he is given a final moment of incredible heartbreak and pathos.  Despite mostly playing the buffoonish foil, Bowler Hat Guy is one of the more complex and three-dimensional villains in the Disney library.

Our hero is young Lewis, an orphaned young man who must learn to make peace with his past in order to embrace a possible happy ending.  His adventures in the future of course leads to various insights and revelations, but the story is firmly rooted in Lewis's journey, one that makes this a worthwhile double-bill with Pixar's Up.  While Up concerns a suicidal old man who discovers that he still has something to live for at the end of his life, Meet the Robinsons concerns a young man desperately trying not to give up as he faces one disappointment after another in the opening years of his existence.  The film resolves its plot threads in a satisfactory fashion, one rooted in the time travel semantics of its story and one rooted in Lewis's inherent intelligence.  Meet the Robinsons also contains one the of the greatest epilogues that I can remember, a stirring and emotionally powerful montage set to Rob Thomas's "Little Wonders".  At the time, it was a powerful affirmation of the idea that there was an eventual pot of gold at the end of a long-fought rainbow.  Today it's merely a happy ending for a character who has grown and damn-well earned the chance to make the right choices.  Long-story short, if you're not welling up just a little by the end of the film, I'm not sure I want to know you.

"Keep Moving Forward!"  It's the motto of the Mr. Robinson, the patriarch of the futuristic clan and it encapsulates the film's theme as well.  The origins of this phrase provides a lovely grace note to the very end of the picture, one that is oddly fitting for the time in which it was made.  2007 was right in the middle of a dark period for Disney, during that 2003-2009 period when Pixar was king, Dreamworks was nipping at Disney's heels, and the death of 2D animation had left the original Disney animation house somewhat at a loss at how to distinguish itself in a field where it was once uncontested.  The film was not a massive box office success (it earned $169 million worldwide), ironically offering top-notch 3D work a couple years before that became a selling point.  As a random point in Disney's filmography, it is sadly a blip on the radar, and if it is remembered twenty years from now it will be solely because of essays like this.  But Disney kept moving forward, as now Pixar and Dreamworks must keep moving forward through their current growing pains.

Meet the Robinsons is not the most monetized of the modern Disney films.  Lewis and Bowler Hat Guy merchandise does not fly off the shelves and there was (fortunately?) never a direct-to-DVD sequel despite initial plans for such.  It will never be a major part of the Disney brand, but it deserves its moment in the sun.  Meet the Robinsons remains one of the great modern Disney cartoons both because it is great and because it was so unassuming.  It has wonderful characters, a genuinely witty and intelligent script, moments of unexpected goodness and moments of thrillingly scary action.  It is the very definition of, to quote that other Disney animated feature, a diamond in the rough.  I'd argue that the imaginative and thoughtful Meet the Robinsons is every-bit worth the label of 'Disney Classic' as the likes of The Lion King or Finding Nemo.  I wasn't writing regularly at the time and I still regret not having a platform to spread the word when the film came and went six years ago. On the other hand, like a number of films "I love more than anyone else", my feelings toward it are surely enhanced just a bit by the fact that everyone else missed it the first time around.  Six years later, you still have a chance to correct that mistake.

Scott Mendelson

1 comment:

Erlend Lunde Holbek said...

I really like this series. I haven't seen this one, but does it really look as cheap/dated as these stills?


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