Some people credit The Princess and the Frog with being the start of Disney’s creative revitalization, but although the audiences didn’t wise up to the fact that the company’s films were beginning a new, gradual ascent in quality that would eventually culminate in material just as good as that of the Renaissance era, my humble opinion is that the first significant step in the right direction was their CGI-animated wibbly wobbly timey wimey Meet the Robinsons, which I not only consider vastly underrated but I actually prefer to most of the classic Pixar films. Actually, the only Pixar film that was produced either before or up to the point of Meet the Robinsons that I like more is Ratatouille, but that’s neither here nor there.
While Meet the Robinsons begins as many Disney animated features do, focusing on an under-appreciated odd-duck young orphan, it swiftly veers into science-fiction territory, with a time travel story that takes glorious advantage of all that the genre has to offer, both its fun excesses and its more intellectual potential for complex and intriguing plotting, paradoxes and all.
When we first meet young Lewis, he is a brilliant young boy, obsessed with science and always making all sorts of crazy inventions, a passion that often alienates various couples who arrive at the orphanage to consider adopting him. Sadly, even adults think he’s weird.
One day, however, he strikes upon the perfect plan: due to misinterpreting advice from the kindly woman who runs the orphanage, he becomes convinced that his mom was the only person who ever truly loved him, since she gave him up in order to give him his best shot at a happy life, and so decides to build a machine that will reach into his deepest subconscious and project an image of his mother, long buried in his earliest childhood memories. His tireless efforts to bring his dream gadget to fruition are thwarted, however, when Doris, a sentient, robotic bowler hat from the future (yes, you read that right) sabotages his work.
Before Lewis can be too distraught, however, he finds himself being dragged into the future himself by a mischievous kid, Wilbur, who is one year older than him, and claims that he needs to fix his memory device because the fate of the very world depends on it. It is imperative that they not let the malevolent Bowler Hat Guy win.
I hesitate to spoil the film any further for anyone who hasn’t seen it, because it is so loaded with surprise after surprise for a first-time viewer, but I will say that it is beautifully realized and heartwarming (adjectives which, of course, are pretty standard for Disney fare), while also being completely insane (not quite as common), in the best possible sense of the word. At times, it feels like the creative team decided to take every B-sci-fi-movie element ever and mash them up into the maddest melange of out-there tropes you’ve ever seen. As an example of one of the film’s most memorable scenarios, picture a completely wackadoodle family of eccentrics–one trains frogs to sing, one has a face drawn on the back of his head, one claims to be married to a puppet, their butler is a squid…
–trying to subdue a rampaging T-rex wearing a mini-bowler hat, in a futuristic world that calls to mind The Jetsons, with all sorts of mindboggling gadgets and Wonderlandish lunacy:
The entire film is imbued with a sense of timeless retrofuturism. The time into which Lewis is born has some elements that seem to link it to an earlier era–the 1940s or 50s–and others that seem to come from our time, and the Future (TM) seems to be a blend of both what a kid of the 1950s and today might imagine technology might look like one day, with a bit of pure magic thrown in (people travel by bubble).
Meet the Robinsons also hinges on a number of extremely intelligent and rather sophisticated twists in the last half hour that are both truly unexpected (in an “I can’t quite believe they went there” sort of way) and completely fitting at the same time–its climax centers on a simple yet ingenious, hilarious twist/riff on time travel paradox–and closes on a truly touching and inspiring quote of Walt Disney’s that both strengthens and further emphasizes the film’s multi-layered central metaphor and message, namely, “Keep moving forward.”
That sense of wonder and unbridled imagination and optimism permeates the entire production, but what makes it truly shine is its emotional core. At the heart of all of this glorious weirdness is a brilliant but small, misunderstood, lonely boy who longs for but despairs of ever finding a family who will not only love him and vice versa but share in all of his kooky joys, and who ultimately finds it by taking a wondrous, whimsical journey bouncing back and forth through time. And just as importantly, he even comes to realize the impact that his singleminded desire had on others around him, recognizing that he didn’t always treat the people he had in his life before with the care or respect he should have. These lessons, however, are woven into the story organically, without any obvious didacticism or saccharinity.
All in all, a truly wonderful film.
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