Meet the Robinsons – Disney’s forty-seventh animated feature focuses largely on time travel and the future, something I’m kind of surprised they hadn’t covered previously. After all, between Tomorrowland and Epcot, it was obviously one of Walt Disney’s primary interests. The computer-animated film is about a young orphan named Lewis who is a genius inventor, but is constantly rejected for adoption. He invents a brain scanning machine to recover his memories of his mother who left him at the orphanage. When he tries to demonstrate it at a science fair, he runs into a boy from the future named Wilbur Robinson, who is trying to recover one of his father’s two time machines from a villain in a bowler hat. Wilbur takes Lewis back to his own time, thirty years in the future, which turns out to be a science fiction utopia with flying cars, retro-futuristic building designs, sentient robots, transport tubes, and octopus butlers.
Lewis stumbles upon Wilbur’s grandfather and helps him to find his false teeth, on the way encountering all the bizarre members of the Robinson clan. These include a guy who talks to his hand puppet, two men who hang out in flowerpots outside the front door, an uncle who delivers pizzas in space (I’d suspect some Futurama influence here if it weren’t for the fact that the character actually predates that show), and a cousin who invented multiple cannons that he uses to annoy his sister.
I didn’t really think all these characters worked too well. Most of them only appeared long enough for us to see a particular personality quirk, and few of their oddities fit the futuristic theme. Oddly, these characters are pretty much all that remains of the picture book on which the film is loosely based, A Day with Wilbur Robinson by William Joyce.
I haven’t seen the book, but while it has some of the retro sci-fi themes present in the movie, I don’t know that it was specified as taking place in the future. The style of Joyce’s pictures comes largely from 1940s commercial art, and this carries over to the film as well. It’s quite impressive in its visions of the future, but I do have to say I’m still not used to the way people tend to be rendered in computer animation. Maybe it’s just because I’m not used to it, and as I grew accustomed to the movie’s style it bothered me a lot less.
A series of odd twists reveals that (SPOILER ALERT!) Wilbur’s dad Cornelius is actually a future version of Lewis, and the villain his former roommate Michael “Goob” Yagoobian, who blames Lewis for keeping him up all night and making him fall asleep during a Little League game. I had actually guessed both of these things before they were revealed, but wasn’t totally sure that was the direction they were going to take. I guess one character turning out to be a future version of another is a common twist in time travel stories. As a villain, Goob is quite childishly incompetent, never thinking his plans through all that well. The brains of his operation is an artificially intelligent hat called Doris, who also bears a grudge against Lewis. The adult Goob reminded me of Professor Hinkle from Frosty the Snowman, both in appearance and personality. Beth mentioned the same thing, so I was glad I wasn’t the only one who saw it. I suppose his being accompanied by a magic hat of sorts didn’t hurt in that respect.
With stories like this, I’m always interested in how the mechanics of time travel work out. Obviously this movie didn’t take it too seriously, but at the same time I think it made good use of the plot device. I did notice a few potential paradoxes, in that Lewis was the one who knocked on the orphanage door after his biological mother left him there, and Goob told himself not to get over his Little League failure. These were minor points, however, and I suppose they could have worked out anyway. When Lewis made Doris disappear simply by saying that he’d never invent her, that seemed like a rather Bill and Ted kind of resolution. Also, since Lewis goes back and wakes up Goob at the vital moment in his game, who knows what that might change in the future? I also found it interesting that the last name of the scientist who adopts Lewis is Krunklehorn, so I guess she kept her maiden name if her husband’s is Robinson. I don’t believe the figure of thirty years is mentioned in the movie itself, but not only does it parallel Back to the Future, but the IMDb points out that 2037 (thirty years after this movie’s release date) is the year the 2002 film of The Time Machine said the human race would become extinct.
As far as themes and morals of the movie go, the frequently repeated motto “keep moving forward” is revealed at the end to come from a speech by Walt Disney. It’s repeatedly pointed out that most of Lewis’ inventions fail miserably at first, but since he perseveres and learns from his failures, he eventually becomes the world’s foremost inventor. There’s also a clear effort to combat the Dickensian model of orphanages that still persists today, as the director of the orphanage where Lewis lives is kindly and encouraging. Overall, it’s a little overly wacky in some respects, which isn’t to say that I mind wackiness, but not all of it fit the plot. Still, it was a clever story that presented characters who were both funny and sympathetic.