Meet the Robinsons

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This review was written for the theatrical release of "Meet the Robinsons." 

Walt Disney himself is evoked twice in the new digital animation feature from the Disney Studios, "Meet the Robinsons." At the beginning, a scene from his first Mickey Mouse cartoon, 1928's "Steamboat Willie," briefly hits the screen. Then at the end, a quote attributed to Disney appears on the screen in which he observes that no one at his studio spends much time looking backwards. "We keep moving forward," he declares.

What is strange about this film's attempt to establish a linkage with Disney's spirit is that "Robinsons" is the most un-Disneylike cartoon yet from Disney animation. The thing is a hellzapoppin' of eccentric characters, zany situations and wacky gizmos, but little effort has gone into making any of this connect with an audience.

More troubling is that director Stephen Anderson seems not to have asked himself who is his audience. Some plot mechanics, especially a delay in establishing the back story until deep into the movie, may bewilder younger children. Yet the "zaniness" plays far too young to sustain much interest in older children or adults.

"Robinsons" points up just how much Disney's two animation units are heading in opposite directions. Pixar, which Disney acquired in a stock swap last year, continues to produce intriguing, cutting-edge CG animation that entertains people of all ages the world over. But the older Disney animation unit in Burbank, the one Walt established, can't seem to find stories or approaches that will gain traction with audiences any more.

The Disney name means solid opening weekend boxoffice for "Robinsons," but thereafter the film's performance may fall below average. That the film is getting released in 3-D, which is scarcely used in the storytelling, seems like a gimmick, perhaps one springing from desperation.

Initially, the story revolves around a 12-year-old orphan, Lewis (voiced by Daniel Hansen and Jordan Fry), a boy genius whose nerdiness keeps him from getting adopted. So he invents the Memory Scanner, a machine that will extract a memory from his mind of the mother who abandoned him when he was a baby.

Then, abruptly, a cocky youth named Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman) crashes the scene and whisks Lewis away in a time machine to the future. This Future World is a rainbow-colored playland created by a company called Robinson Industries, run by Wilbur's dad, and filled with robots, monorails, singing frogs and machines that squirt peanut butter and jelly. Eventually, it becomes clear that Wilbur is showing Lewis his own future -- that is, if he will stop worrying about the past and instead, as Disney would say, "keep moving forward."

This Future World is a cross between Oz and Alice's wonderland, only without the wit or sophistication. It's a continually goofy world that, frankly, proves too much of a good thing. Adults all act like children, and everything is devoted to play. There is a nominal villain, called simply the Bowler Hat Guy, but he is too bumbling and inept to present much of a threat. A crazed dinosaur is kind of funny, at least as funny as anything in a movie filled with mirthless gags and food fights.

Danny Elfman supplies a jaunty musical score that helps to propel the story in a caffeinated rush. (Keep moving forward!) "Robinsons" has one real connection to Uncle Walt: It makes you long for the good old days when Mickey and Minnie could simply crank a goat's tail and play a happy tune. Cartoon madness shouldn't be so much work.

MEET THE ROBINSONS
Buena Vista Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures
Credits:
Director: Stephen Anderson
Writers: Jon Bernstein, Michelle Spitz, Don Hall, Nathan Greno, Aurian Redson, Joe Mateo, Stephen Anderson
Based on the book by: William Joyce
Producer: Dorothy McKim
Executive producers: John Lasseter, William Joyce, Clark Spencer
Art director: Robh Ruppel
Music: Danny Elfman
Visual effects supervisors: Steve Goldberg, Chris Peterson
CG supervisors: Corey Smith, Marcus Hobbs
Editor: Ellen Keneshea
Cast:
Mildred: Angela Bassett
Lewis: Daniel Hansen, Jordan Fry
Goob: Matthew Josten
Wilbur: Wesley Singerman
Cornelius Robinson: Tom Selleck
Carl: Harland Williams
Franny: Nicole Sullivan
Uncle Art: Adam West
Running time -- 95 minutes
MPAA rating: G

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