Meet the Robinsons
Following Joyce's picture-book vision of the Robinsons, a family of unfettered inventors and idea people, director Stephen Anderson and company whip up an expanded story. And they set it in a time that resembles futuristic visions from the 1930s and '40s, the architectural style Streamline Moderne, the work of famed designers like Raymond Loewy -- and old science-fiction magazine covers by Frank Paul or Ed Emshwiller. The movie doesn't really get going until it hits the future -- the first third is draggy -- and the computer graphics may give you a temporary headache. But the 3D effects may point to what movies could look like decades hence.
I'm not sure I'm happy about that. I love "flat" movies, their aesthetics and their connection to classical painting. But there's something exhilarating about the newness of "Meet the Robinsons'(" retro-future look that makes it nutty fun.
In the reshaped story, a new character, Lewis (voiced by Daniel Hansen and Jordan Fry), is whisked from the present to the future by reckless boy time traveler Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman), who's pilfered one of dad Cornelius' many inventions. (Cornelius is voiced by Tom Selleck, in a rare role where he can't take advantage of his eyebrows.)
Wilbur, among other things, is trying (not too well) to protect 12-year-old Lewis' science fair invention, a memory scanner machine, from the wicked Bowler Hat Guy (director Anderson) whose villainy is indefatigable. So is Guy's head gizmo, the bowler hat itself, whose name is Doris and who is meaner than he is.
Once in the future, Lewis meets a large ensemble, mostly Robinsons--including musical mom Franny (Nicole Sullivan); weirdo Grandpa Bud (Anderson again) who wears his clothes backward; super-pizza man Uncle Art (Adam West); and the spiffy house robot Carl (Harland Williams). And a battle royal simmers between the Robinsons and evil Guy, who looks like an androgynous take on Snidely Whiplash, the villain from "Rocky and His Friends."
The tale, set to a playful Danny Elfman score, has a couple of surprises in store, some involving Lewis' present-world people, his kindly orphanage caretaker Mildred (Angela Bassett) and fellow orphan "Goob" Yagoobian (Matthew Josten). That unpredictability is in itself a good sign.
In the 1930s, when Loewy was dreaming his so-called MAYA (for "Most Advanced Yet Acceptable") dreams, the great technical innovator in movie animation was Walt Disney; his studio's cartoon progress from "Steamboat Willie" in 1928 to "Pinocchio" in 1940 was staggering. So it's nice to see Disney animation on some kind of cutting cartoon edge again -- even if there are moments in "Robinsons" that seem mostly designed to show off the 3D.
I did like the whizzy Robinsons, though, and most kids should have a ball with them and their world, once the movie gets going. Anderson gives us the fun of impossible or unlikely dreams and also a story with some deeper emotions -- perhaps because the director himself was an adopted child. The movie, in its way, is a tribute to the imagination and, when it enters the future, it's a new-fangled, old-fashioned jim-dandy of a show.