The Twit Family Robinson
By Noel Vera

Meet The Robinsons
Dir: Stephen J Anderson (2007)

And now, the latest piece of ordure from The Rat Factory--sorry, Walt Disney Pictures…

Stephen J. Anderson's Meet the Robinsons, based on the book by William Joyce, feels like ninety minutes spent in a disco for the half-blind and hard-of-hearing. I've read of Japanese interrogation techniques that were less sadistic; should be classified as "Cruel and Unusual Punishment," or "In Violation of the Geneva Code."

It's an excruciating movie. Lewis (voiced by Daniel Hansen and Jordan Fry), an orphan inventor out to prove himself at the school science fair, is the kind of standard-issue Disney hero they seem to crank out by the metric ton lots nowadays.

Throw in a "Back to the Future" plotline where Bowler Hat Guy (voiced by Anderson himself) steals a time machine to go back into his past and sabotage Lewis' science project; a family of drearily "lovable" eccentrics called the Robinsons (at least the filmmakers must have hoped we'd think they're eccentric (we might if we've never seen a single Warner Brothers animated short); a chorus line of song-and-dance frogs (how dare they insult the memory of Chuck Jones' immortal "One Froggy Evening?") and you have the formula for the kind of "fun, fun, fun for everyone!" Disney's been selling for the past, oh, forever.

At one point a character explains her invention "I have the caffeine patch... each patch is the equivalent of 12 cups of coffee, you can stay up for days with no side effects," whereupon she lets loose a shriek. You know exactly how her listener feels.

It's not as if the story made sense--if Bowler Hat Guy upsets the past, shouldn't the effect on the future be instantaneous? Granted, some time-travel movies ("Back to the Future," "A Sound of Thunder") posit a delay (actually time-travel movies as a whole are full of plotholes and paradoxes), shouldn't someone establish the length of the delay, or at least raise the issue? If Bowler Hat Guy is such a hopeless klutz, shouldn't the flying bowler (don't ask) look for a smarter partner in crime? If the Robinsons are so rich, shouldn't they have a security system commensurate with their wealth (what with people and even dinosaurs popping in and out of their estate, seemingly at will)?

If Lewis visits the future in a flying car, shouldn't he be sitting quietly in the passenger seat instead of trying to wrestle the controls from Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman)? If Bowler Hat Guy steals Lewis' invention and tries to pass it off as his own, shouldn't he be trying to do that in in Lewis' time instead of in his own--where, presumably, such devices would already be old hat (and if stealing the devices instantly alters that timeline--well, see above)? And if the family finds out that Lewis is from the past (and he is who he is), shouldn't they immediately grab him, tie him down till the time machine is fixed, make sure he goes back to where he belongs--maybe erase his memory in the process? Isn't doing that a far, far more urgent priority than, well, showing disapproval towards one family member's apparent foolishness?

But it's useless trying to apply logic to the product of a studio that's never been famous for storytelling logic--when gags fail or the pace slows it's time to turn on the waterworks, and "Robinsons" is simply full of it. Lewis is such a needy whiner it's no wonder he responds to the Robinsons' in-your-face cheerfulness; Bowler Hat Guy is a Snidely Whiplash cliché too annoying to laugh at; the ending is such a shameless affirmation of the Robinsons' essential Goodness and Cheer you feel as trapped as James Stewart, surrounded by rugrats and loving neighbors at the end of "It's a Wonderful Life" (Yes, I'm aware that most people consider Capra's film to end happily, but I don't see it--for me Stewart suffers the equivalent of Hell On Earth, is in effect a drooling zombie that smiles on cue at each and every bell ring).

Setting aside the story (which is lame) and the characters (who are repulsive), the very look of the movie isn't all that impressive. Obviously the picture was influenced by the Tomorrowland section of Disney's park (the cheesiest land in a kingdom of cheddar, in my opinion--even Space Mountain lacked a decent loop or corkscrew); they were also trying for a '30s Futurism look, or something like Frank Paul's covers for Amazing Stories in the '20s, with the kind of stylized, spotless feel--not a grease stain or fingerprint anywhere--that just begs to be lampooned.

But asking for satire (real satire, with teeth) from a Disney flick is like asking Uncle Walt himself for a pay raise (look up his record with unions, if you like); you'll find yourself staring into a gaping, howling abyss where the heart (or brain) should be.

Oh, not all of it is reprehensible. For about five minutes, when Bowler Hat Guy's vision for the future is realized the movie's color palette darkens from banal pastels into something really interesting, full of shadows and textures lit by a warm orange glow (presumably hellfire, or at least the Disney version of it); workers move with synchronized precision, recalling Lang's "Metropolis" but with Magritte bowlers in hand--a nice absurdist touch in this all- too-brief dystopia (the "Spongebob Squarepants" movie featured something similar, only with bucket helmets that managed to be funnier and creepier, both). Then balance is restored, the dreary pastels returned, the smiles relentless as ever.

At picture's end we learn that the Robinson's motto--"Keep moving forward" is actually Uncle Walt's own. Move forward indeed--to quote an even greater thinker than Disney (whose true genius was in squeezing middle-class families even today of most of their child- raising dollars): "he who forgets the past is condemned to repeat it." Disney was a master of kitsch, of supposedly wholesome (read: sterile) family entertainment, of a moneymaking synergy the richest men in the world gaze upon with envy (from movie to merchandise to themed vacation resorts, he had it all)--if he wanted you to keep moving forward and not spare a backward glance, that's probably because he didn't want you finding out about the lesser known, far more talented artists (U.B. Iwerks, Tex Avery, the Fleischer brothers, to name but a few) out there in the great unknown, waiting to be discovered.

Note: First published in Businessworld, 06/08/07.
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June 29, 2007