"Around here, however, we don't look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things...and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths."
Meet the Robinsons draws to a close with that inspiring quote from Walt Disney. It not only succinctly summarizes the theme of the movie but the approach to the material that director Stephen Anderson and his sprawling staff of writers take as well. Meet the Robinsons is informed by Disney's past, but it shatters many of the comfortable formulas the studio's movies have settled into in recent years, bolstered by a spastic sense of humor and a wide-eyed sense of wonder that both harken back to some of Disney's most classic films while also looking confidently to the future. Meet the Robinsons is the strongest movie to come out of the studio in quite a long time, and hopefully it's just a hint of what we can look forward to in the years to come.
Twelve year old Lewis is an avid inventor, even if the machines he cobbles together have a tendency to...y'know, explode. He's a sweet kid, but his intense focus on his unstable inventions turn off the parade of prospective adoptive parents that swing by to meet the young orphan. Lewis wants to be part of a family more than anything, and after his 124th consecutive failed adoption interview, he decides to track down his birth mother. The only problem is that she left Lewis on the steps of the orphanage one rainy night twelve years ago, and no one knows who she is or has ever even seen her. Well, except for Lewis, who tries to dig up those long-lost memories of his mother from when he was a teeny, tiny baby by building a memory scanner, leading to lots of sleepless nights for him and his baseball-crazed roommate Goob.
Lewis puts the finishing touches on his memory scanner just in time to rush to the school's science fair, not ever even having had a chance to give the gizmo a whirl. As soon as Lewis strolls in, he's bombarded with questions by Wilbur Robinson, an oddball teenager with a cowlick coif and questionable credentials as a time-cop from the future. Wilbur warns Lewis to keep an eye out for the sinister Bowler Hat Guy, a sneering, moustache-twirling badnik cut from the Snidely Whiplash cloth who isn't quite sharp enough to pull off the whole villainy thing, instead leaving most of the heavy lifting to Doris, his sentient robotic bowler hat. Lewis shrugs off Wilbur's warnings, and when his memory scanner goes haywire and trashes everything in sight, he's ready to give up on inventing for good. Wilbur pleads with Lewis to give the scanner another shot, but his stabs at proving that he really is from the future leave 'em both stranded in the sparkling utopia of 2037. Wilbur tries frantically to steer Lewis away from his...oh, let's be nice and say "eccentric" extended family, all the while attempting to inspire him to fix the broken time machine and save the space-time continuum from the nefarious mechanations of Bowler Hat Guy and Doris.
Admittedly, Meet the Robinsons is a slow burn at first. The movie knows where it's going well before the audience does, and although the setup has its smirkingly charming moments -- Goob disinterestedly rambling on about baseball while helping Lewis string together his peanut butter and jelly machine, the movie continually teasing an audience that knows Lewis' device is going to splatter PB&J over every square inch of the room, and livening up a standard issue montage with an absolutely brilliant Rufus Wainwright song -- it settles somewhere in the neighborhood of just okay. Its earliest scenes are slower moving and nothing particularly memorable, double-underlining so much of the setup that the punchlines are generally pretty predictable.
...but then Wilbur whisks Lewis to the future, and that's when Meet the Robinsons really finds its footing. There's something so deliriously random about every turn the movie takes from there: a woodchuck inexplicably dangling off one character's arm, a Sinatra-styled singing frog possessed by a miniature, remote-controlled bowler bat in a pond-side bar, a Tyrannosaur Rex barely able to keep from tumbling over a cliff when he's plowed into by an oversized train set, a grainy, crackly kung-food fight, the, um, completely outta left field celebrity cameo when Wilbur is rattling off his family tree...and that's just barely nicking the surface. Meet the Robinsons has seven credited writers, and it's as if Disney shoved all of them into one tiny conference room, put 'em each on an IV drip of Jolt Cola and Pixy Stix, and had them hammer out the entire second act stream-of-consciousness style. These random, unexpected turns in the plot and the enthrallingly bizarre Robinson family are consistently hysterical, and yet there's a kind of coherence in this caffeine-addled hodgepodge of ideas that gels the way a polished, well-conceived film ought to. As left of center as the Robinsons are, Stephen Anderson and company keep them feeling charmingly odd rather than weird for weirdness' sake, so instantly endearing that it's easy to understand why Lewis would be so immediately fascinated by them.
Meet the Robinsons doesn't ever let up after that first jaunt to the future. It's consistently engaging and almost unrelentingly funny, and the breakneck pacing makes the movie seem as if it barely breaks the hour mark instead of clocking in at 90 minutes as it does. Every bit of the kinda-plodding setup is paid off wonderfully too, and I'm left with the distinct impression that I'll be a lot more keen on that first act my next time through. Meet the Robinsons' final moments are sweet without ever feeling cloying or saccharine, and if you catch me on the right day, I might even admit to getting kinda teary-eyed near the end. What an absolutely wonderful movie, from the strength of the voice acting to its inspired, oddball sense of humor to the drop-dead gorgeous visual style to its sincerity and emotional resonance. I also appreciated that Meet the Robinsons steps away from the traditional "believe in yourself" moral in favor of "keep moving forward". It's not subtle, no, but Meet the Robinsons delivers that message creatively instead of just bludgeoning the audience over the head with a couple of weepy monologues, and the idea of letting go of your past...looking to the future while realizing that it's okay to stumble along the way...is so much more meaningful anyway. Very, very highly recommended.
Video: No other studio on either high definition format has been able to match the spectacular quality of Disney's Blu-ray discs, and the 1.78:1 AVC-encoded video of Meet the Robinsons continues their string of jaw-droppingly perfect releases. The image is brimming with fine detail, from the pebbled texture of the T-Rex's skin to the distinctness of each individual blade of grass on the Robinsons' front lawn. Its colors, particularly after Lewis leaps forward into the future with Wilbur, leap off the screen. Bright, vivid, and sumptuously saturated, these are the sorts of hues that DVD could never hope to fully reproduce. Nothing about Meet the Robinsons' razor sharp and richly textured image disappoints. As this is a direct-digital transfer, there aren't any print flaws to sneak in, and not a single compression hiccup was spotted throughout. Though not quite as immaculate as a Pixar production, Meet the Robinsons has a gorgeous visual style that translates beautifully in high definition -- there are some shots that look lovingly painted rather than rendered on a bank of computers, and I mean that as the highest possible compliment -- and this is easily one of the most instantly striking releases I've seen on either of these next-gen formats.
Audio: Disney has included another of their 24 bit uncompressed PCM soundtracks on this disc. The sound design of Meet the Robinsons isn't as kinetic or hyperactive as a lot of the other computer animated movies I've seen over the past few years, but it's still a very strong effort. The lower frequencies are tight and punchy, and the surrounds get a fair amount of use, most aggressively in the more action-oriented sequences. The voice acting comes through perfectly, nicely balanced in the mix against the music and whirring sound effects. The depth and clarity of the soundtrack are both outstanding, making for an overall impressive experience.
One of the most intriguing audio options is an isolated effects track -- no dialogue, no music, just sound effects. Also included are Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks and optional subtitle streams in English, French, and Spanish.
Extras: Almost all of the extras on this Blu-ray disc are presented in high definition. The disc opens with a set of high def plugs for Enchanted, Wall-E, and Ratatouille, but don't be quick to mash the 'title menu' button on your remote your first time through -- Enchanted kicks off with high definition excerpts of a slew of Disney animated films, leaving me even more eagerly awaiting their arrival on Blu-ray.
Director Stephen Anderson chimes in with a great audio commentary, focusing much more on the way the characters and story evolved throughout the lengthy development process rather than the nuts and bolts of production. Anderson notes his attachment to the material, being an adopted child himself, delving into everything from the way Lewis' first encounters with the Robinsons are almost like a date, side-stepping around the recording of voice actors who hit puberty while production was underway, why the two time machines look so different from one another, and using vivid primary colors, smoother textures, and rounded edges to contrast the future from the present. The bits with the "special guest" that pops up a few times are kinda goofy, but they're short enough to not really get in the way. Definitely worth a listen.
The 18 minute making-of featurette "Inventing the Robinsons" runs through the earliest days of production, from the real-life family members that inspired A Day with Wilbur Robinson to a scrapped live-action adaptation of William Joyce's book. Headed up by Stephen Anderson, the featurette then delves into the unconventional process of Meet the Robinsons being storyboarded in its entirety and screened for the studio before getting the green light, and the footage shown gives some indication how drastically the movie changed over the years. "Inventing the Robinsons" spends a good bit of time on the designs of the characters, the recording of the voice actors, and all of the music scattered throughout the movie. I'm geeky enough to have wanted to hear more about the technical end of things, which gets kind of short thrift on the disc, but this is a solid featurette.
Also presented in high definition is a reel of six deleted and extended scenes, each opening with a video introduction by Stephen Anderson and running just over twenty minutes in total. The footage is a mix of polished computer graphics, rough black-and-white renders, and sketched storyboards, including a less effective way of dragging Lewis to the Robinsons' futuristic home, Carl the robot cowering in a closet after bumping into Lewis for the first time, the Robinsons attempting to boost Lewis' self-confidence as a budding inventor, and an alternate take on the way things are wrapped up in the movie's final moments. It's appreciated to be able to see the way fairly small changes can dramatically improve the finished product; there are certainly some good ideas in here, but the way they were polished in the final film are a lot stronger.
Only three of the disc's extras are presented in standard definition. First up is "Keep Moving Forward: Inventions That Shaped the World", a six and a half minute piece rattling off a list of inventions like the wheel, the printing press, and the airplane, in between clips from eight hojillion Disney movies. It's okay, but it's the type of filler they drop in between shows on the Disney Channel. There are also music videos for Rob Thomas' "Little Wonders" alongside "Kids of the Future", a Jonas Brothers song updating an old Kim Wilde favorite.
There are two Java-based games exclusive to the Blu-ray release. The first of 'em is "Bowler Hat Barrage", a side-scrolling shooter a la "Gradius" that plays a little choppier than I'd like on my PS3. Less demanding on the player is "Family Function 5000", a trivia game that has viewers helping Lewis line up the Robinson family tree. A 'movie showcase' rounds out the extras, compiling a set of three excerpts from Meet the Robinsons that Disney has set aside for Blu-ray enthusiasts to show off their home theater rigs.
Conclusion: Meet the Robinsons snuck in under the radar during its theatrical run this summer, but it's a wonderful movie -- by far Disney's best in several years -- and is well-worth discovering on Blu-ray. The disc looks and sounds amazing in high definition, in keeping with Disney's stellar level of quality that no studio on either high-definition format has been able to approach. Its extras are meaty enough to deserve a spin, and as much as I liked Meet the Robinsons the first time through, I get the impression that I'll have an even greater appreciation for it with a second look. Highly Recommended.
The images scattered around this review are promotional stills and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.