Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Worth seeing, and worth an extra $2.50.

Like the other Cartoon Geeks, I have a troublesome job, plus other things I have to do, so I don’t get to attend premieres or get into sneak previews very often. But this Tuesday I had suffered a great deal. Part of that suffering was the fallout of the Virginia Tech shootings and the resulting TV coverage. You civilians can turn it off. I was broadcasting it. I had to watch it. It got to me. And so, I determined to see a movie in a theatre for the first time in months.

Grindhouse? Certainly an outré project, but too much sadism and death. Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Film for Theatres? Too wiseass and self-referential; if I want burning chicken I can do it in my own oven, thank you, Master Shake. TMNT? Never was a Turtles fan and didn’t think the animation looked that good. So I went to a late showing of Meet the Robinsons, and was surprised that ten other people showed up to see it – all of them college-age couples, at 10 PM, in a suburban theatre, on a school night.

To put it simply, this was the first Disney animated film in years that I smiled at all the way through - and the first time I was aware that I was smiling at it.

The story is fairly simple. A preteen orphan boy named Lewis (Daniel Hansen), a bit of a science geek, invents a “brain scanning machine.” His purpose is personal; he wants to find his birth mother, and thinks the key is in scanning his memory. A cliched-looking villain named Bowler Hat Guy, whose bowler is a sentient flying robot, arrives from the future and steals the machine. A kid from the future arrives and takes Lewis to his future world, to meet his family of colorful, wacky eccentrics – and to stop Bowler Hat Guy.

Oh, there are plot complications, but I won’t spoil them here. Suffice it to say, the plot complications are the same sort of games played in the Back to the Future trilogy, the Terminator movies and a few others. These complications land beautifully, they make sense, and they are more complex than anything I’ve seen in a Disney-made film.

What really made this film was the pacing of the gags. Disney generally plays out its gags casually, slowly, afraid that the short-bus kids won’t get the jokes if they’re told too fast. That didn’t happen here. In the middle act, the humor comes flying fast and frenetic. Unsung and probably overlooked in the rush of the film – but guys I’d like to buy plushies of – are the sentient, singing, dancing, jazz-playing frogs kept by the Robinson family. They bear some Rat Pack, Las Vegas pizzazz and just a little touch of The Sopranos.

The future has a lot of wackiness. Disney fans will see buildings like Space Mountain and the Astro Jets from Tomorrowland in an amusement park (labelled “Todayland”). Bowler Hat Guy has been pegged as a Snidely Whiplash clone, but I was reminded of Doctor Steve, the comic time-travelling villain in The Radio Adventures of Doctor Floyd (which you can explore at

However, in the film’s final third, frenetic action pacing slows down as a very moving moment, the emotional heart of the story, plays out. Director Stephen Anderson grew up in an orphanage. He brings out the agony Lewis has, as he is rejected by potential adopted parents, sees his first attempts at scientific gadgetry fail, and collapses into self-doubt. That feeds into the film’s final third, and gives the plot – with all its time-travel-paradox cleverness – real meaning. The film also has a moment that is fairly dark and disturbing, a future gone wrong, a territory Disney has traditionally avoided – but it’s there.

Although it came from a children’s book by William Joyce, many people see Lewis as a clone of Nickelodeon’s Jimmy Neutron, down to the weird hair. That’s probably kept a lot of people from seeing this film. But they should go anyway. Meet the Robinsons isn’t a complete success, but it’s a better film than Cars, and the best animated film Disney’s made in years. This is a good start for Disney’s comeback as an animation studio; this is making Rattatouille seem optimistic.

By the way, if it’s available in your town, try to see it in Disney 3-D. You’ll pay an extra two and a half bucks for the special glasses, but it’s really worth it. As I think I mentioned back with my review of the re-released Nightmare Before Christmas, the process works great. It’s no strain on my eyes. And as the first feature that was intentionally made for this 3-D process, it’s superior technically to the Nightmare 3-D version. For comparison, the film's preceeded by a Donald Duck/Chip 'n' Dale short from the 1950's made in 3-D. It's...well, creepy.

And a final note to the DreamWorks folks who keep promoting the stars as voice actors; in this film there are only three “celebrity names.” And Tom Sellick, Adam West and Angela Bassett do their parts professionally, without fanfare and without referring to their earlier works. There weren’t any cheap pop-culture references in the film, either.