Welcome to the Disney Revival Rundown! This week, we at Rotoscopers are analyzing some of the most recent Disney animated films, and what makes each one so great. At the end of the series we will have a fan vote to determine which is the best of them all!
Meet the Robinsons was not Disney’s first CGI feature film but it was the first film to be released under the new company name, ‘Walt Disney Animation Studios’, with the new Steamboat Willie logo. It was John Lasseter’s hope that by renaming the studio he could start fresh and get the studio firmly back on its feet. Was it really the beginning of the new ‘Disney revival’ that lead to big box office hits such as Frozen and Big Hero 6?
If you haven’t seen Meet the Robinsons, let me give you a brief synopsis: Lewis is a young orphan inventor who meets an enigmatic boy named Wilbur Robinson. Together they travel to the future to track down the evil Bowler Hat Guy and set Lewis’ life back on the right path.
I remember going into this movie not knowing what to expect, and I think that is the best way to go into it. It was nothing like any previous Disney film I had seen; it did not have music by Alan Menken and it was not based on a classic novel. It was a quirky time-travelling comedy with plots, sub-plots and even a twist ending. I like princess movies and buddy comedies as much as the next Disney fan, but when it comes to a film about family then real heart-strings can be pulled. If you asked me what my favourite animated film is, the answer will always be Meet the Robinsons without doubt.
Before I talk about the Robinson family, let’s take a look at our main hero, Lewis. He has a need to create new things that can make the world better and he is very much the dreamer, similar to Walt Disney himself. He is also an introvert and, like all of us at his age, a little lost in life.
“I’ll be thirteen next year and you know how hard it is for a teenager to get adopted. I have no future,” Lewis claims. Here begins the real central motivation for the story. It’s all about the future – literally, since they do travel to the future, but also metaphorically. It makes us think about what we can achieve that will make us truly happy. For Lewis, it is not just a Nobel prize or a hefty paycheck for his inventions. It’s someone he can call ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’. Director Stephen Anderson was an orphan himself and, I believe, this really gives a more realistic depth and emotion to Lewis, and thereby the film itself.
This brings me on to the family. Meet the Robinsons is based on a picture book by William Joyce whose other works have been adapted into animated movies, such as Epic and Rise of the Guardians. There is something rather personal to his book A Day with Wilbur Robinson though as it was based on his own ‘screwball’ family. He even had an uncle that was convinced he was from another planet. This is why I find the family to be so entertaining and interesting. But more than that, everyone from Franny who trains singing frogs to Uncle Art and his Pizza delivery spaceship are open-handed, warm and caring. It’s not difficult to see why Lewis would jump at the chance of being adopted by them. Let’s not forget Wilbur, too. He is the epitome of a mischievous charismatic young boy. He is bold enough to wear a lightening bolt on his t-shirt and use phrases like ‘the truth will set you free, brother’. If it wasn’t for Wilbur’s spontaneous extroverted nature, Lewis would never have traveled to the future and met a true friend.
But every good movie needs a good villain, too, and the Bowler Hat Guy ticks all the boxes. That is the director’s voice you hear as BHG – through the help of channeling his road rage apparently – with an almost Jim Carrey-like comedic timing. BHG is driven by selfishness, and an evil hat named Doris; it’ll make sense when you have seen the film. He is what Lewis could have become if he focused on the past. You’ve got to love a villain that is complex. Yes, that’s right. I’m calling the Bowler Hat Guy a complex character. After all, he does somewhat redeem himself.
I am very lenient when it comes to judging the animation of Meet the Robinsons. Since it was released in 2007, we know that it’s not going to have the budget of Frozen or the rendering ‘super computer’ of Big Hero 6 but you can certainly see it’s the beginning of something special. There are reflections in windows and a scene with black smoke that to me looks super realistic. It is also the brightest color script I have ever seen, particularly when you get to the future and everything is so bold and crisp. Maybe it is the ‘Tomorrowland’ Walt Disney was hoping for. You’ve also got to love the background detail in this film. Did you happen to catch the birds on the roof wearing fezzes? It is one of those movies that clearly had care and attention. My favorite example is Lewis’s socks. Did you ever notice that one of his socks is always down? Character designer Joe Moshier explains in the Art of Meet the Robinsons that “the one sock that has lost its elasticity and sits slightly lower than his shin belies a little bit of instability”. That is the kind of detail I love to see in a movie, animated or otherwise.
What about the music? There are no major Disney songs that get stuck in your head after you have left the theater, but the film does not fall down in the music department. Ever heard of Danny Elfman? I think he usually has something to do with Tim Burton. In Meet the Robinsons, he is on top form. I really admire live-action film composers that don’t look down on scoring animated films. Elfman brings everything he normally does to the music: dramatic suspense and emotive pieces. It is fair to say I’m a fan of Elfman but combine it with an animated film about family, then I’m sold. All I have to do is listen to the track “Setting Things Right” and I’ll tear up as quickly as I did when I watched the movie. Even the ‘pop songs’, that usually feel contrived in movies, fit snugly into this film. Rufus Wainwright’s childlike singing voice almost feels like he’s goading Lewis on in the background and Jamie Cullum’s smooth jazz tone adds so much class to the singing frogs. The cherry on the cake is of course Rob Thomas’s “Little Wonders” that accompanies the film’s message of ‘keep moving forward’ so perfectly.
I cannot talk about the ending without giving away spoilers, so you’re safe for now if you haven’t seen it. But I will say that we do find ourselves at the end of the movie with a lot of loose ends to tie up. And if the characters and the music was not enough to grab me, then the ending warms my heart and gives me hope. I believe this was the beginning of the ‘Disney Revival’ because, unlike Disney’s previous films Home on the Range and Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons had heart and depth. As a fellow animation fan, I’m sure you understand that animated movies are so much more than ‘kids films’ and ‘silly cartoons’. They touch us on an emotional and creative level that can stay with us forever. I live by Lewis’s and Walt Disney’s ‘keep moving forward’ motto. And that’s not a testament to how I live but how the movie has helped me live.
What do you think of Meet the Robinsons? Where would you rank it in our Disney Revival Rundown?
Other articles in the Disney Revival Rundown:
- Meet the Robinsons (2007)
- Bolt (2008)
- Princess and the Frog (2009)
- Tangled (2010)
- Winnie the Pooh (2011)
- Wreck-It-Ralph (2012)
- Frozen (2013)
- Big Hero 6 (2014)
Edited by: Kajsa Rain Forden