Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for comparison. It may not keep me sane, but it will probably always involve one guy shouting, “This doesn’t make any sense!” And that’s good enough for me.
MEET THE ROBINSONS (2007)
Meet the Robinsons is the story of a little orphan boy named Lewis (Daniel Hansen, Jordan Fry) who loves him some goddamned science. Unfortunately, his obsession with making dangerously flawed gadgets makes him practically unadoptable. When he brings one of his terror machines to a science fair, he’s warned by a boy named Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman) that an evil guy in a bowler hat (Stephen J. Anderson) is going around stealing inventions. Then they get in Wilbur’s time machine and the movie gets kind of stupid.
Friends, this is a tough one to review, and it has everything to do with tone. Meet the Robinsons is partially an amazing, heartfelt film with important lessons about the diverse nature of families and learning to move beyond your past. It is also partially an annoying clusterfuck of colorful but utterly baffling characters that very nearly derails the entire movie.
The worst part of Meet the Robinsons shouldn’t be meeting the Robinsons.
Those are two members of the Robinson family, the futuristic clan of weirdos that Lewis meets after Wilbur Robinson takes him forward in time. These two guys live in tree pots in front of the house, beg you to ring the doorbell nearest to them, and nobody in the family knows where they came from. What is the joke I’m missing? They invent doorbells… and they like plants? Is it a “pothead” pun? I hope not, because Jesus.
You might think I’m merely puzzled by a single scene, but every one of the Robinsons is fucking bizarre. Here’s a guy married to a hand puppet, which is treated like just another member of the family…
Hope nobody’s walked in on them during sex.
Here’s a guy who likes to draw faces on the back of his head and wear his clothes backwards…
You’re having a pretty weird day when you’re the most normal guy and you’re wearing a fruit hat.
And here’s a guy who carries little cannons everywhere and uses them for nightly food fights with the fam.
Fuck these captions, I’m done.
Again, all of these characters come screaming at your face a mile a minute, doing the most random shit you can possibly think of, for at least a third of the movie. Is it commentary? In the future, any odd quirk will be seen as normal? Lewis seems to enjoy their company, but I was so utterly repulsed by their parade of confusingly unfunny nonsense that I’m thinking Lewis faked it out of a pure desire to be adopted at any cost.
Honestly, how bad can an orphanage really be?
If this were all part of an entirely disposable children’s film without any attempts at uplifting morals or clever humor, that would be fine, but it’s sandwiched between two halves of a well-crafted time travel story that explores a variety of important themes in a way that’s digestible for kids. It felt like a Pixar production that the studio stuffed some cartoony bullshit into the middle of, but I found out afterward that the exact opposite may be true. According to IMDb, director Stephen J. Anderson showed a test screening to John Lasseter, Mr. Toy Story himself, and Lasseter gave him a list of notes that eventually resulted in 60% of the movie being redone. I’m going to assume the good bits are all on that list.
And the good bits are so good. It’s maddening.
As part of the Lasseterization process, the voice of Lewis was actually recast. Luckily, he’s a fairly generic science geek kid, so I’m not going to lose any sleep over whether the true maestro is Daniel Hansen or Jordan Fry.
Aww, aren’t you just precious?
For true genericalness, though, we turn to Wilbur Robinson, a thoroughly unmemorable catalyst for adventure that has no discernible character traits and doesn’t even compensate for this with a big bright costume. Wesley Singerman tries to give him that “cool kid” voice, but he’s fighting a losing battle with bland writing.
You tried, kid.
The villain, though… damn. He’s incredible. Known only as Bowler Hat Guy throughout the majority of the movie, his over-the-top bravado paired with crippling insecurity is the sort of hilarious combination we’ve come to expect from… director Stephen J. Anderson?
Just about every other character is an irritating talking piñata, but special mention goes to Harland Williams as the Robinsons’ robot assistant Carl. I know, you’re probably assuming he’s the loudest, most annoying cartoon in the bunch, but his performance is surprisingly reserved for Williams and reminds me more of C-3PO than, I don’t know, whatever crazy crap I saw in the trailer for Robots. Don’t worry, he still flails his limbs like a klutz.
And gets robo-sad.
THE SPECIAL EFFECTS:
The time travel looks fun for the kids. The craft makes a big bubble around itself and flies into a hole in the sky, then pop. Future.
Where we’re going… it’s just really soapy.
The future is your typical retro-tech pastel metropolis without any right angles. Less Blade Runner, more Star Trek, with an infusion of Willy Wonka.
Come on, this is Disney. There’s gotta be a penis in there somewhere.
The ripple effect continues the bubble motif. I dunno, time travel runs on dish soap here, I guess. Still, it’s an interesting look, with the new timeline “bubbling up” through the old.
Who stepped on a loud, wacky butterfly?
Oh, wait, it isn’t all bubbles and fun. If a person gets rippled out of existence, their body turns to dust as their soul screams its way into the darkened sky.
Sleep tight, kids!
OTHER (SPOILERY) STUFF:
- Yeah, there are some things I could spoiler here, but I’m not gonna. There are a couple of minor paradox oopsies, but nothing that isn’t a problem with every time travel movie.
THE “NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE!” MOMENT:
Slim pickings, but Lewis is a rational science kid who requires proof, so I guess this mini-meltdown counts.
“There is no bowler hat guy, there is no time machine, and you’re not from the future! You’re crazy!“
I really enjoyed the time travel arc. It’s great. They use the format well to explore memories, grudges, fate, love, and the nature of evil, and each is tackled in a satisfying way that doesn’t treat kids like they’re stupid. That’s why it’s so shocking that the middle of the movie is just a sugar rush of insanity that I can’t even imagine liking or understanding as a child. I’ll admit there are moments of great comedy, most of them surrounding the superbly acted villain, but the Robinsons… they’re just a tough sell. When the story hinges upon discovering a wonderful family that your main character wants to be a part of, making them a thoroughly unlikable bunch causes us to wonder what’s wrong with the kid.
Ultimately, see it, but brace yourself for that excruciating middle chunk. It gets so much better.
Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.