02 April 2007


When we describe the Disney movies we love, we tend to use words like "magical," "fantastic," "innocent"; when we describe the Disney movies we do not so much love, we use words like "simple," "sentimental," "clich├ęd." Now, thanks to the hyper sugar rush of technical wizardry known as Meet the Robinsons, I have a new set of words that I never would have expected to apply to anything created in the House That Walt Built: unpleasant, spastic, pushy, and tedious.*

My hatred of Disney's move from traditional 2-D animation to CGI is notorious and loudly proclaimed, but I will confess this: Chicken Little at least looked like the Disney house style. Meet the Robinsons does not, nor does it look like any Disney competitor I can immediately bring to mind. It is a film of terribly alienating character design (so many pinchy faces and tiny eyes!) blended with very plastic-y backgrounds that give the whole affair a curiously setbound feel. No, I do not know how a film made entirely on computers can feel setbound.

Fluid movement, though. It's always easy to overlook that, even for a hardcore animation junkie like your 'umble blogger, so I will make a point of praising the animation team for the great attention paid to the motions of human characters: there are no blocky or arrhythmic movements, and no instances of people drifting about just for the sake of moving. This is not a given, even within the realm of Disney (they had a particular problem with character movement in the '80s, although they had every other problem a studio could have in the '80s, so let's not harp on that).

The story: a poor little orphan (of course) named Lewis (voiced by both Daniel Hansen and Jordan Fry, presumably because of pubertal difficulties) is a brilliant inventor, whose latest invention is stolen by an evil man with a bowler hat from the future (director Stephen J. Anderson). Sort of to the rescue comes teenage Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman), also a time-traveller, and the Contrivance Fairy engineers things such that Wilbur must take Lewis back to the future. Lewis meets the Robinsons, and falls in love with their aggressively quirky ways. This being a time-travel movie, there is of course a bit of plot-hole generating intrigue that involves certain characters being shockingly connected to the past, and in the end there's a little secret, just the Robinson's affair.

I worked so hard for that line, and I am such a tool because of it.

The most basic and most damaging problem with Meet the Robinsons is its desperately screwed-up tone and pacing. The first act, in which Lewis is a lonely orphan, is incredibly slow-moving and flavorless, and the second act, in which Lewis finds his footing in the crazy future world, is as manic as a five-year-old on a sugar high. Like so many comedies both for children and for adults (and God only knows which audience is the target here), Meet the Robinsons and its team of screenwriters mistake "zany" for "funny," leading to a seemingly endless string of forced-hilarity character traits: OMG SHE HAS SINGING FROGS! OMG HE'S A PIZZA DELIVERY MAN WHO ACTS LIKE CAPTAIN KIRK! OMG CLOTHES ON BACKWARD! OMG TALKING SQUID! Et cetera ad infinitum.

It's tiring, frankly. There's too much noise and too much color and too much wacky and it's goddamn impossible to keep up with it, like watching Elmo of Sesame Street on crack for ninety minutes. I mean that the audience is on crack, not Elmo. Although it works either way, really, so however you read it the first time, go with that interpretation.

Plus, it's joyless, because if there's one thing that forced hilarity never, ever has been, it's genuinely pleasing to observe. If anything, it's an embarrassment: embarrassing that you're sitting there, embarrassing that the filmmakers tried to pawn it off as legitimate entertainment.

It's not possible to talk about Meet the Robinsons without bringing up the elephant in the room. Disney's crack team of marketeers has done a rather impeccable job of pimping the technical gimmick of this film with more single-minded intensity than anyone has pimped a gimmick since the great William Castle back in the days of the first 3-D craze. Yes indeed, Meet the Robinsons is a three-dimensional film, boys and girls, and not just any old 3-D: it's in Disney Digital 3-D! What does this translate into?

It translates into really fucking fantastic 3-D, that's what. I'm not such a grouchy old cynic that I can't appreciate good ballyhoo, especially if the product turns out halfway decent, and I definitely appreciate a good strong bit of old-fashioned Cinematic Spectacle; and I can say without an instant of hesitation that this is just about the finest-looking 3-D in the history of the cinema. Indeed, the effect is so flawless and so enveloping that I consider revoking my earlier complaints about the film's settings: they are given depth and life, and therefore become far more interesting to look at. I am a film purist, let none say otherwise, but if this is what digital projection is capable of, I might have to be a lot less snobby about the issue. It's an absoultely amazing piece of work, and I won't go so far as to say it makes the film worthwhile - a crap script is a crap script - but damn if it doesn't come close.

My big problem is that I'm not persuaded that 3-D actually serves a purpose. There have been few films - perhaps none - in which 3-D was used for a legitimate purpose other than planting asses in theater seats, and Meet the Robinsons doesn't look to change that. I find myself recalling the birth of such cinematic advances as sound, Technicolor, CinemaScope - none of them were immediately used for anything other than the WOW factor (and frankly, I'm not persuaded that the American cinema has ever quite figured out how to use sound artistically, although every couple of years a film comes along that almost proves me wrong. Certainly, given what the French were doing by the mid-'30s, we have nothing to be proud of). For the first time, I am persuaded that someday, maybe, there will be great 3-D art; but it's not here yet.

Meet the Robinsons is a shitty film, but it is a shitty film that seems to herald good things. If you're obliged to go see it, please at least try to make it to a 3-D screening: that is the only way it's bearable. But I certainly can't recommend it, except to the curious, who will have to be prepared for a joyless onslaught of the lowest-grade cartoon swill imaginable. Any way you look at it, you lose.

4/10, for the 3-D version ONLY

1 comment:

McAlisterGrant said...

I'm interested in seeing what you have to say in your re-review. I think you were right on the money about Chicken Little, but I think you're a little too harsh here. Of course, if you don't like the frantic, sugar-rush pace of the second-act (and it is a frantic, sugar-rush pace), I can't fault you for that, but it struck me as being much more sincere than Chicken Little. A little frantic, a little forced, but I think the writers genuinely wrote what they personally found funny, rather than writing for the "platonic idea of a child".