“Meet the Robinsons” is adapted from A Day with Wilbur Robinson by William Joyce. Basically it’s an adventure about time travel and finding family, which is important because the protagonist, an awkward boy genius orphan named Lewis (Jordan Fry), can’t seem to fit in anywhere.
This isn’t a very good movie, but it’s still attempting to do something heartfelt with the story, and that alone makes it a far less miserable viewing experience than the dreaded “Chicken Little”. The problems here are far more obvious and basic, thankfully most having to do with simple story details. In all honesty, this could have been a better movie; it just needed a better approach. There was no saving “Chicken Little”.
The story follows the orphan Lewis, who’s an inventor and unable to find a suitable family to adopt him. His inventions explode, so he’s instantly unappealing to parents I guess. At a science fair, his memory scan machine is sabotaged by an idiot with a bowler hat, preventing him from learning about his true family and starting a massive time paradoxical adventure involving a family from the future. This is how he meets the titular Robinsons.
Most time travel movies of this type often begin with the future setting, thus establishing important characters and allowing the audience to see the visual and character differences when we see them again in the past. It’s a staple of time travel fiction, just look at the formula of “Back to the Future”. That’s not to say it can’t be done another way, but when you start out in the past and then introduce the future characters late in the story as a surprise, it’s not as easy to recognize, let alone care about them. This is probably the biggest problem with “Meet the Robinsons”, because it has a terribly predictable story. All the twists can be seen coming from a mile away; making you wonder why even set them up as twists to begin with?
The heart of the movie, given that the protagonist is an orphan looking for a family, is the bonding of family. Giving the character friends and a future to yearn for as an alternative to a past he will never know (his mother abandoned him on the front steps of the orphanage) is a nice sentiment, but the handling of it is all wrong. Instead, there’s extra emphasis on the action and the humor, both of which serve as the weakest aspects of the movie. They try hard to make it funny, mostly with a lot of zany visual gags and bizarre character choices (the futuristic Robinson home is a veritable mad house), but none of it works as well as they clearly hoped it would.
The best moments are in the few heartfelt scenes, mostly because there’s a basic story worth caring about here. I know this could have been made into a better movie, they just didn’t know how to tell the story anymore. That, as a description of the Disney animation team, is a sad state of affairs.
While leaps and bounds an improvement over “Chicken Little”, “Meet the Robinsons” is yet another example of how behind the competition Disney was at the time. Following in the footsteps of “The Incredibles”, Disney made a story about CG human characters. Bold, considering they were not as adept at animating them as Pixar. The humans are of harmless enough designs, no threat of the uncanny valley, but they lack the polish and cartoony nature of their competitor’s efforts. More obvious is in the environmental and background animation. The city of the future is very colorful and bright, but most of it is set on the Robinson compound. Here we get plenty of smooth and nondescript backgrounds for the wacky characters to run around in. There’s little detail to any environment, because detail means more work for the animators. Just look the world outside the Robinson house. It’s nothing but endless empty hills.
Though there is a clear effort here, Disney just can’t compete with the superior product being sold by the other animation studios. It’s one of the few times in history where Disney is not at the forefront of American animation. In the mid 2000s, they were in serious danger of falling behind.