Walt Disney Animation Studios (March 30 2007), Walt Disney Home Entertainment (October 23 2007), single disc, 94 mins plus supplements, 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, Rated G, Retail: $29.99
Young orphaned inventor Lewis spends a day with mysterious kid from the future Wilbur Robinson to put right what once went wrong, in a high spirited adventure.
The Sweatbox Review:
I’ll admit to not enjoying Meet The Robinsons as much as many others did…on my first encounter with the movie in theaters earlier this year. While it was a clear step back toward top form for the Disney Studios after the emphatically boisterous Chicken Little and had picked up good word of mouth, I honestly didn’t think that Disney’s artists – so long the dominant masters of their art form – could handle the complexities of a human based drama in computer animation. Chicken Little had been highly promoted – a high visibility factor that the Robinsons movie lacked – and seemed to show Disney following the spoof animation crowd rather than blazing the trails as they had done for so long before.
Meet The Robinsons could be mistaken for another in this line of frenetic, whirlwind movies, and indeed that’s how it came across to me initially. The story, loosely based around William Joyce’s book A Day With Wilbur Robinson, cooks up some suitably nutty ingredients: young Lewis, an inventor who isn’t the most popular of kids, is proving difficult to find adoptive parents for, not helped by the fact that his contraptions don’t always perform as expected on cue. Especially annoyed by this is his roommate, nicknamed Goob, kept awake each night when Lewis’ latest gadgets flip out. During the school science fair, Lewis quite rightly thinks he’s in with a chance, but his creation is sabotaged by the odd and vaguely sinister Bowler Hat Guy, a man with no real name but a clear ambition: to screw up Lewis’ future at any cost. Help is at hand in the form of young Robinson, who whisks Lewis to the future to show the kid that he does indeed have a part to play. However, Bowler Hat Guy is on their trail, and he forms a plan to get Lewis stuck where he is forever, thus unravelling the past and giving him the chance to revenge his own lost childhood…
Now with a premise like that, you can’t put Meet The Robinsons in a box and call it a typical animated feature fare, but it does still fall into a couple of unfortunately contemporary conventions. The film begins purposefully slowly, in a refreshingly small and intimate way that will pay off enormously towards the end, when this opening takes on an emotional new meaning. As the film progresses, I wasn’t sure that Lewis and Goob weren’t the only two kids in the orphanage – possibly the result of the People Police, the group of budget conscious supervisors who nix “unneeded” characters or crowds in CG movies. It’s not all that didn’t match up for me, once we hit the future. Presuming that Lewis’ time was now, or at least the very near future, we seem to have only jumped forward by roughly 20-30 years despite a huge leap in technology. That Lewis’ part in the future wouldn’t really come into play for another three-to-five years, it was just a little too much to swallow that the future world of the Robinsons would have altered this much in this time frame, and I questioned if it would not have been safer to set the future scenes yet a further generation or two forward in time, where the character of Cornelius could have been used in the Grandpa role. Simply put, the differences in time does not equate to the differences in the world.
The future is also too hyper, which doesn’t lend itself any distinction in breaking away from the same feel of other CG features, such as Fox/Blue Sky’s Robots, which truth be told for a while I was set to comparing Robinsons to during its second act before I realised that author Joyce was involved in both. The opening of this film had been great, followed by the science fair and some typical Disney “believe in yourself” speak that started to put me off. When Wilbur comes along, Robinsons takes on his secretive, random characteristics, which aren’t all that likeable at first (it’s all explained later) and quickly irritated me. A moment with some big-band happy singing frogs still feels totally out of place for me in a world where other creatures retain their animalistic habits. Again, the secret is to let things play out…we get there in the end and the payoff is well worth the reward.
There remains, however, no real heart in the future, which is what Meet The Robinsons really needed to ground the sheer lunacy of what were are being presented with. Crazy is all well and good, but it needs foundations and rules instead of simply collapsing into a mumbled jumble of one-liners and shouty voices that I thought were just loud, aggressively trying to be “funny”, and self conscious. Actually, after a promising start, this slide into overly familiar bustle and noise led me close to thinking that this could have been the worst film I’d seen since Robots (indeed, there’s one character here that could have been an extra from that film)! I liked how the future was depicted, with its many bouncy and inventive devices, though found the change in pacing at odds with the fairly laid back approach to life that the futurians live.
But then that ending, a brilliantly gauged, wonderfully executed moment, comes along and it’s instantly clear that all the heart and emotion that the middle had been missing has been saved up for this ingenious third act. If any are familiar with the musical play Blood Brothers, the experience is somewhat akin to what happens on stage in that production. As most will tell you, it comes over as being pretty amateurish throughout, with many people leaving half way and being unable to figure out why the thing has been running for so long, but then…the end comes, an event that hits you hard, and the first thing you want to do is go right back in and see it all over again. That’s what happens here, with Meet The Robinsons. Just when I had started to question what had happened to all the good stuff at the beginning, we then meet Cornelius, and somehow the whole film locks back together; he brings the required dramatic weight and super-injects a whole lotta heart that’s been missing until now. Then Lewis gets the trip he wanted and needed all along, and it’s played really, really well.
I finally felt for the characters more than I had done all along, and I don’t mind admitting that I even shed a tear, half for Lewis, and half in respect of the work that the artists pulled off in these final moments based on the great values of animation that Walt Disney created all those years ago. Though once things have been given a chance to breathe for a moment the film once again strives to tie up its loose ends (Lewis finding a family, all the coincidences that occur in the last seconds of the film) neatly – too neatly – it all somehow works. And then we get the “Walt quote”, a page of text that embraces and encourages the message of the movie, and this touch just knocked me for six. Meet The Robinsons is all about its ending, the moment that compels an audience to go back and watch it right over again, and though it was sometimes a tough slog to get there, it truly pays off handsomely.
There are some things that still don’t work for me: despite the Disney artists stepping up to meet Pixar’s standards, I couldn’t go with the fact that the characters were CG humans but that real people’s photographs were used in picture frames, which just didn’t make sense to me when the very point of CG animation is to appear photoreal, however stylised. Why were there no caricature “photos” of Einstein or Tom Selleck instead of the real photos? Doesn’t that make the entire cast of characters freaks in their own world? Or are Einstein and Selleck the disfigured freaks? Going this route works on South Park, for example, or the image of Elvis in Lilo And Stitch, because there isn’t the ambition to achieve photorealism. Meet The Robinsons is certainly striving for a stylised photorealism, so those real real photos stick out and don’t work, plain and simple.
The rest of the look of the film works as well as it has to. Most of the emotion in the earlier scenes comes from the lighting moods more than anything else, coupled with composer Danny Elfman’s unique score. He’s taken a wonderfully new approach here that strays away from what could be considered his “usual sound”, coming up trumps with an inventive score, complimented by others’ songs that follow the Pixar model of not having characters break into song, with a number of original tracks perfectly suiting their moments (including even the frogs’ big band “standards”) but that will, I fear, be overlooked come Oscar time.
The Studio artists’ animation is uniformly excellent, apart from the occasional character, and again for such a bustling, crowded film there were not many people on the streets…a drawback that never seemed to be a problem in hand-drawn times. The future especially – Todayland being the exceptional joke – is a complete diversion to the nitty gritty post-apocalypse styles of more heavy movies, and brighter still than even those “fun futures” we’ve seen in like-minded movies such as Back To The Future Part II and Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey. But nothing particularly “wowed” me, including the Bowler Hat Guy, who had unfortunately had his best scenes revealed in trailers and clips.
He’s a great, fun character, but does Bowler Hat Guy bring any worth to the picture? Again, the issue of grounding comes up, along with a wavering accent – given the background we’re eventually allowed to pick up on, why would he have a British accent? Director Stephen Anderson, adopted himself and bringing to the film a great deal of his personal understanding of an orphan’s experiences, voices the character himself – a bold move – and has suggested he has a British “influence”. While it works for the character on screen, there’s no reason that he should be affected as such, nor even that he should wear that very icon of British institutionalism, the bowler hat, later revealed to be a mechanical device named Doris. Here again, the background story to the hat’s “character” doesn’t quite add up. It works, but I felt the threat could have been bigger and more of a build up to a proper showdown. I could have done with Lewis coming to a greater realisation about what he could do to stop Doris rather than just carry out the method of the hat’s destruction that he does. Doris really needed, and deserved, a slightly grander ending, with Bowler Hat Guy being given a little more resolve too.
While Doris winds up being the hidden but main threat, the attention has been thrown upon Meet The Robinsons’ nominal bad’un, the Bowler Hat Guy. In truth, he isn’t the greatest villain in a long while, as has been widely praised, but he is one of the most entertaining. Where he fails is in not actually being evil enough, or able to carry out his plans: he’s a scheming nincompoop, not scary, and therefore not as effective as other human rogues such as a bitter Lady Tremain, dog-killer Cruella De Vil, child-abductor Madam Medusa or even bad butler Edgar, which he probably resembles closest. However, as the work of a superb melding of oily Terry-Thomas type pantomime scoundrel elements (from all those mustachio twiddlers from The Perils Of Pauline, though Dick Dastardly, Oil Can Harry, Jack Lemmon, in The Great Race, and so on) and spectacularly slick and fluid animation, on an entertainment level he’s absolutely first class.
Apart from Anderson’s baddie, the rest of the voices deliver pleasing performances, largely from a cast that’s short on big overwhelming poster names and more in line with being right for the part. Even the near-legendary Adam West is kept in check as a suitably loony character. I enjoyed all apart from Wilbur himself, who came over as being too old, and possibly Lewis, who was too whiny for someone with a never give up attitude. There was also the question of why a male performer (Anderson again) played the part of the Jane Jetson-esque sister Tallulah in the future, which I couldn’t make out a discernable reason for, and pondering this made me realise that I didn’t think the dialogue was particularly well written overall. The movie has great moments, though, such as Bowler Hat Guy’s attempts to tame and command a giant T-Rex dinosaur, lending the film its stand out comedy moment and the line that got repeated ad infinitum in the previews: “I have a big head, and little arms!”
I still feel that some parts are rushed or don’t have enough depth to them, while others try to pack too much in; some sequences go on for too long or don’t have a reason to be there. Most of the second act – meeting the Robinsons themselves – are elements I recognised from the book, but with a book one can read and turn the pages at their own pace, not being as so frantic and allowing the artwork to work its own charm. This is why the second viewing is a must. We simply don’t spend enough time with the titular family, since the movie zips around so much, but (as with many films with final twists) time travelling back to see it again…the second time allows us to psychologically build on what we soaked in on the first go and fills in the logic to forgo any of these issues. Meet The Robinsons is certainly more wondrous again, where the characters that have little emotional impact can present themselves anew, but with already acknowledged reasoning.
Meet The Robinsons, then, spins its many wonders much more confidently in its second time out, not least because the fates of heroes and villains are both known up front, allowing for these extra new angles to play out as they repeat the storyline for the audience. A second viewing to improve any film is an odd thing to have to recommend, surely, since movies should work first time out of the gate, and trying to get someone to watch a film they didn’t enjoy first time around can be a tricky proposition. But Robinsons really does work in this way, which is why I think it’ll become a slow-burn classic amongst a great many DVD viewers, and deservedly so.
Though the themes of accepting who one is and all those around you – whatever their quirks – and the age old “follow your dreams” have been done to death, particularly by Disney, they’ve never been as direct and heartfelt or dressed up as in this film. It’s just ironic that, for a film that is all about embracing failure, picking one’s self up again, and trying to fix your problems, it comes close to failure itself. The middle of the movie – the titular meeting of the Robinsons – is overly frantic, perhaps too much so, but this is also the heart of the original Joyce book and it’s all part of the road along which we must travel to revel in the emotionally charged knockout punch ending. What I’m not sure about, even now, is that in the attempt to withhold plot information in order to deliver that ending, much of the first half of the film is filled with apparently pointless diversions that can be close to irritating for an audience to bother with.
But, as with Monster House, Stephen Anderson’s Meet The Robinsons was something a little different on theatrical release, and it remains one of the more interesting, quirky and original animated features in recent computer generated years, including Pixar’s previous to this, Cars. Robinsons comes close, at times, to replicating the commercial, pop-culture feel of that film, but does also strive to be more of its own timeless classic, lending it the uneven quality that jumps between pure storytelling (Lewis’ journey) and the need to be overly contemporary (in many ways, his destination). Any unevenness experienced in Meet The Robinsons could well be put down to the Pixar effect – it was during production of the film that Disney acquired the company and its chief John Lasseter urged a reworking of the film, pushing back the release a few months, though apparently bringing Anderson’s personal comparisons to Lewis’ situation to the fore.
It’s possibly this late tinkering that helped the third act so much (certainly, from what I understand, it was Lasseter’s idea to use the Disney quote on screen though Anderson says differently in his commentary), but the messy, splashy middle (again ironically the bones of the book), keep the film from being the complete return to form that fans were hoping for from Disney Animation. There’s a question as to whether the Disney quote actually works: certainly without going into details I knew the film ended this way before I saw it the first time, and I felt it was a cheap use of Walt’s philosophy to whitewash the move to CG-created features (“Keep moving forward”). But in the context of the movie itself, coming as it does at the end of a powerfully charged conclusion, it seems just the right thing to be saying, even if it does still slightly feel like some kind of justification by bribe, if you will, via direct words from the man himself.
However, with all the talking animals, cars, bugs and penguins in such current fare, it feels fresh just to be able to return to good old human family values, and Meet The Robinsons gives families a very good reason to sit down together again.
Is This Thing Loaded?
Before we move onto the supplements proper, we must take a moment to discuss the new Walt Disney Animation Studios logo that graces – and made its debut on – the front of Meet The Robinsons. I have to say again that it made more of an impression on me seeing it for a second time on this DVD. Making the connection with Disney’s earliest success – in this case Mickey’s famous whistle from Steamboat Willie, his sound debut in 1928 – shows the kind of “back to the roots” the new Pixar chiefs are focusing their energies towards, but it’s the final rendering of the prominent Walt Disney signature that really offends. What’s the idea behind the use of a black marker pen? It looks thin, with the “big D”, the Studio’s biggest trademark, being “written” bottom-up instead of how we usually see it being drawn top-down. It should be the most prominent letter in that whole logo, but it looks flat, and if this is an attempt to make the “signature” look like a real signature, then it fails. As with the new Walt Disney Pictures castle logo that was introduced last year, I have to say that neither ultimately inspire the magic we usually associate with Disney Studios, and I was interested to note that the print version does indeed thicken up that D a little more.
Another logo I noticed a small change on was the DisneyDVD logo itself: now a traditionally animated Tinker Bell sweeps across the screen instead of the CGI one that’s been adorning it the past few years. All that aside, Meet The Robinsons on disc comes the way of Disney’s recent animated offerings on DVD, in a limited special edition that just about covers what we need to know without delving deep into the kinds of features us collectors used to look forward to those deluxe two-disc editions for. The disc starts up with the usual force-fed Sneak Peeks, also available from their own menu, offering previews for the new reissue of Peter Pan: Return To Never-Land, The AristoCats, Cinderella II: Dreams Come True, High School Musical 2, Snow Buddies, Ratatouille (which again shows just how far ahead Pixar are when it comes to this stuff), Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause, the theatrical trailer for Enchanted and the push for the Disney Movie Rewards program.
As with Chicken Little and Cars before it, the Robinsons disc serves up some token add-ons and some usual suspects, but chief among the surprises is a full length Audio Commentary with director Stephen Anderson, who fairly warns any listeners up front that haven’t run the movie through yet that his remarks will deal with story spoilers. Keeping the chat up for most of the film’s 94 minute run time, Anderson is a little bit of a dry fellow, and though his thoughts are intrinsically fascinating (pointing out that Wilbur’s voice is a little older than originally intended), there isn’t much variedness to his voice and one may find themselves wandering off during the track. However, it’s way unfair to criticise anyone’s natural speaking voice, so I’ll settle on taking a slight knock to the idea of Anderson’s character, the Bowler Hat Guy, breaking into the conversation in an attempt to liven things up. This actually is far from the fun it might sound, and is actually a little embarrassing: though the character is great and the accent comes through, there isn’t much to vocally differentiate each voice and it just sounds like Anderson being silly rather than an actual second character cutting through.
It’s done quite well, with a radio frequency effect, but the need for the director to then ask sound engineer Chris what just happened after each interruption just doesn’t work in the confines of the track. In short, those listening for the (lack of) entertainment value in Bowler Hat Guy’s moments in the track will find themselves bored by the straight technical and story development talk, and those paying attention to the otherwise strong production facts will find themselves annoyed by this silly gimmick. Anderson is obviously proud of his movie and has nothing but praise for his collaborators, showing little ego throughout, which makes it even odder that he couldn’t resist the idea of allowing himself to slip into character. Luckily, it only happens three or four times, but they’re peculiar, unneeded blips in an otherwise solid commentary. Not many of the in-jokes are pointed out, but while listening to Anderson’s remarks I noted a couple of neat ones based around the film’s two main authors: Lewis’ school is the Joyce Williams Elementary, and where he ends up is the old Anderson Observatory – sweet touches that further display subtly the sublime storytelling on show.
While sticking with alternate audio tracks, I was surprised to find a totally unpublicised inclusion of a full-length sound effects track, which presents the entire film sans music and vocals (hidden in the Audio Options of the Set Up menu). While this is the kind of thing Pixar used to like to include on their two-disc releases (hmmm…), I’m simply not sure how warranted this is here, especially when Danny Elfman’s full score has not been publicly made available apart from a crew-exclusive “thank-you” gift CD from director Anderson. Surely, with the following Elfman has, any space for such an extra track would have been much better served in allowing his wonderfully unique and original music score to shine instead of a bunch of bells, whistles, crashes, whizzes and bangs? While the track is of course meticulously assembled, it’s only sporadically interesting for a handful, and nowhere as valuable as a potential Elfman score – perhaps even with cue gap comments? – would have been.
Moving into Backstage Disney, and the Inventing The Robinsons featurette provides the now customary production overview that seem to be the norm on single disc Disney DVDs. As usual, the expertly assembled featurette glosses over the four/five year history of creating Meet The Robinsons, here potted into just under 18 minutes. While the basics of the Studio’s working practices are now well known to any animation DVD collector, and even though this documentary seems to touch on every element in bringing such a movie together, one can’t help but get the feeling that it only skims the surface and that there is so much more to be revealed. There are cursorary glimpses at early versions of the film, but nothing on the switch to Pixar’s John Lasseter influences, though William Joyce gets some welcome screen time, as does the voice cast, composer Elfman, and songwriter/performers Rob Thomas and Rufus Wainwright.
Keep Moving Forward: Inventions That Shaped The World takes a six-minute look at the real life creators and developments that might have inspired Lewis himself, mixing a plethora of Disney images old and new. Presented in 4×3 fullscreen, it’s a rollicking ride through history, taking in such concepts as the first wheel, the printing press, telescopes and, yes, sliced bread, among names as famous as Edison, the Wright Brothers and…Walt Disney, of course, who gets a little company synergy plug for “inventing” the modern theme park, Audio Animatronics and EPCOT, though not his technical filmmaking innovations.
A small peek at versions of scenes altered from how they appear in the final movie are among the three Deleted Scenes presented next. With introductions from director Stephen Anderson, who explains why and what was changed, the clips run for just over a seven-minute total. There are some strong lines in Arriving At The Future that could well have been kept in allowing for the change in direction towards the end of the moment, though Meeting Carl (the robot) was wisely shortened. Best of all is an alternate take on Goob winning his baseball game, with a highly amusing additional line from Bowler Hat Guy that refers to his size and smarts over Lewis. It should be pointed out that the Blu-Ray edition, for some reason, includes additional scenes. Why we don’t get them here too is an unfair mystery to do with holding back perfectly available video-based extras to entice a shift to Disney’s hi-def format of choice.
Music & More provides a look at two Music Videos, for Rob Thomas’ Little Wonders (3:50), which explores the themes of the film in an odd 2.35:1 letterboxed 4×3 that crops off the movie’s imagery, and Kids Of The Future (3:20), performed by the Jonas Brothers. I really wasn’t a fan of their desecration of the Sherman Brothers’ I Wan’na Be Like You on the recent Jungle Book Platinum DVD and I can’t say that this reworded version of 1980s popstrel Kim Wilde’s Kids In America did anything to change that perception, and I had to wonder what the point was (it’s not featured in the film, even in the credits). Finally, the Family Function 5000 Family Tree Game sets up trivia questions based on events and characters in the movie, though unless you didn’t put your brain on hold during the hectic central scenes you’ll be hard pressed to finish this one. The Blu-Ray edition adds The Bowler Hat Barrage!, understandably not included here as it utilises the newer player technologies available exclusively to that format.
Despite the highly visual nature of the film, there are no art galleries presented for our perusal and, naturally, Disney probably didn’t want to remind us of the lame marketing job they pulled out for Robinsons in theaters, so there are no publicity photos, posters or theatrical previews for the movie itself. Maybe it’s worth zipping to the future for the 40th Anniversary holographic cube quadruple dip edition that’s sure to include them? Oh, wait…The Jungle Book just hit that milestone and didn’t include any publicity material either…
Compared, rightly or wrongly and both favorably and not so favorably, in some theatrical reviews to Brad Bird’s The Incredibles, similarities are likely to be referred to again on DVD, especially with the shiny red holographic foiled and embossed slipcover that promotes Robinsons’ initial printing. It’s actually a little snazzier than the Incredibles version, coming with fun time travel bubbles that almost fizz off the case. The design is fairly pleasing too, giving the right amount of coverage to each character and retaining the theatrical feel even if not the poster art verbatim. Inside, there’s the Movie Rewards code, a booklet full of promos for more Disney product to spend your money on (with only a free haircut as a kickback, with strings attached), and an insert for the movie itself, with chapter stops on one side and an overview of the bonus features on the other. Whatever one might say about the bonus content on the disc itself, Disney didn’t skimp on making the Robinsons look good!
Ink And Paint:
Unlike Chicken Little, which was tinkered with to produce a 3D-enhanced theatrical version after production wrapped, Meet The Robinsons was designed from the outset with the 3D presentation in mind. To its credit, the film works just as well in its “flat” edition, which is, with a lack of home 3D technology – yet – what we’re offered here. With the limited extras not grabbing the lion’s share of disc space, Robinsons looks appropriately sharp and colorful from a digital-to-digital transfer. The native 1.78:1 anamorphic image presents the same textures and level of detail as I saw in a digital theater, minus the extra dimension, of course! A Blu-Ray disc edition is also available, promising an even higher resolution closer to the original files created by the filmmakers.
Who knows if Meet The Robinsons had jumped much further than the $100 million or so it made in theaters: we might have gotten a two-disc set. The inclusion of the sound effects-only track is a curious one for a single disc release, when space might have been better employed on a DTS mix, for example, or the wished for isolated Elfman score. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track we do have is perfectly acceptable, pushing these effects and music elements well when each is required and letting the dialogue breathe, especially in the overly hyper moments. As expected of a big-budget Disney movie, this Robinsons soundtrack is as well created an animated mix as you’ll hear in any recent outing. English, French and Spanish dubs and English subtitles for the hearing impaired are offered.
While the movie isn’t a straight home run (it’s perhaps too quirky for its own good, possibly the result of eight screenwriters), it does reward greatly on recurring viewings, which is where the DVD format scores. The extras cover the bases while not going overboard, and let’s face it: the principals of animation have been covered on many previous titles and the specific production information the Studio would ever want in the public domain is touched on in the featurette and commentary. Where the supplements really lose points is in the holding back of publicity material and those video-based clips that could have easily been included but have been given exclusivity on Disney’s new high-definition format of choice, Sony’s Blu-Ray, which benefits from additional deleted scenes. Meet The Robinsons deserves to be discovered and repeatedly enjoyed on DVD, but it’s a movie that does have some drawbacks and a half-hearted disc that’s keeping back some simple features. It’s hard to make this an outright recommend, but it is well worth seeking out as a rental. If you’re won over, then a purchase would set you up for that second viewing, which is where the reward is.
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?