Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Meet the Robinsons (2007)

Meet the Robinsons is the first Disney animated feature since it acquired Pixar in a deal that appointed Pixar's John Lasseter as Disney's Chief Creative Officer. While Pixar did not produce this animated movie, its influences are clear for all to see: Meet the Robinsons is a grand departure from Disney's philosophy of animated cartoons of the previous decade, simultaneously offering a revisioning of its animation aesthetics and sensibility and a return to the original charter laid down by Walt Disney.

You'll see this once the curtains part in the cinema - opening the animated feature is a musical short titled Boat Builders. There's the retro style animated Mickey Mouse/Donald Duck/Goofy logo and the classic Silly Symphonies matching of energetic music to onscreen mayhem (which ensues when the trio attempt to assemble a boat by themselves). More importantly, in Silly Symphony tradition, this short showcases breaking new technology (or at least a new philosophy of animation): although it is a 2D short, everything has been created with CG, with certain subtle sequences highlighting what can be done far better and easier with a set of computers. In one stroke, the short encapsulates the vision of Disney's animation philosophy - the company will always move forward, employing and innovating at the front of animation technology, yet preserving its mission to create family-friendly cartoons that reach out to kids, that inspire them as much as provoke their imaginations.

Also, the Disney first attempt at Pixar's pre-feature short outshines the latter studio's flashier, more technically dazzling efforts Boat Builders can be seen as a minature of the ideas in Meet the Robinsons, which is itself a parable of Disney's gameplan for the future: "Keep moving forward!" Plotwise, the movie tells the tale of Lewis, a young ward at an orphanage who doesn't look forward to his adoption interviews as much as to his newest inventions, whimsical and impractical contraptions that are as fun as they look fantastical. Lewis's roommate, caregiver, and potential adopted parents may have reason to fear his budding genius, but all he really wants is to invent a machine to help him find his biological mother. This time round, it could be an invention that might actually work, but then Lewis is shanghaied into the future by one Wilbur Robinson, who claims he needs to protect the slightly younger Lewis from a plot by a mysterious Bowler Hat Guy and his even more mysterious sidekick and collaborator, a flying bowler hat...

Being a Disney project, Meet the Robinsons is pitched at the entire family crowd. The young will have fun with the adventures of Lewis in the world of the future, and easily grasp its simple story of the search and longing for family as well as its upbeat "Keep moving forward" theme. Slightly older children should be able to enjoy its Jimmy Neutron meets Back to the Future story, while adults will find the comedy in this cartoon just right; it's neither too obtuse to please no one but the pop culture savvy or too patronising and dumbed down to please no one but the very young. There are no fart jokes or sequences involving characters getting high from too much sugary substances, and no pointless namedropping to show how hip the writers are.

The jokes (when they come) are an un-self-conscious lot, relying more on what the scriptwriters and directors feel are genuinely funny jokes than what most other writers would cynically put into a movie because "kids dig fart jokes" or "adults like cartoons that make references to real-life companies and celebrities, with slightly changed names". As a consequence, there's a really fresh feel to the tomfoolery that goes on in Meet the Robinsons. Cultural references are minimal and incidental to the jokes instead of being central to them: the Robinsons family are entertainingly quirky and original even if you don't know they're a sendup of the McFly clan from Back to the Future II; their robotic servant and the sinister bowler hat villain loveable even if they are vaguely based on C3P0 and R2D2 from Star Wars; and the ongoing series of jokes about the incompetent Bowler Hat Guy hilarious (various henchmen, accomplices, and even intended victims question the viability of his plans) even though Splitting Image had a similar in-joke with its spoof of Vincent Price villains decades ago. But all this fits into the theme of looking forward, while finding new ways to recapture the magical quality of Disney's classic children's animation.

The deliberately toned down look of Meet the Robinsons fits appropriately with its newfound philosophy. Instead of distracting audiences with an overdose of 3D (backgrounds and buildings are 3D and sometimes photorealistic while characters designs look more like Wallace and Gromit but done with CGI - hence 3D but not hyper-lifelike), the creators of Meet the Robinsons let the story do the talking. Disney will restart its 2D animation studio after this movie, and if Meet the Robinsons is any indication, their products will be no easy pushovers at all.

First published at incinemas on 5 April 2007

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