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Future looks familiar in `Robinsons'

Though impressive, the 3-D retro-futurist look and time-travel plot feel almost old-fashioned.

March 30, 2007|Dennis Lim | Special to The Times

It's hard to think of "Meet the Robinsons," the new sub-Pixar animated film from Disney, as much more than a stopgap measure until this summer's "Ratatouille." Loosely based on "A Day With Wilbur Robinson," a 1992 children's book by Michael Joyce, it's a breezy knock-off of "The Jetsons," souped up with a time-travel twist and a mostly superfluous 3-D gimmick. (The film is being released in both standard and digital 3-D versions, the 600 screens nationwide being the widest opening ever for a 3-D movie.)

Raised in an orphanage, bespectacled science nerd and boy inventor Lewis (voiced by Daniel Hansen) has terrible luck with prospective parents, who tend to be put off by his messily malfunctioning gadgets. The 12-year-old sets to work on a memory device that he hopes will help him track down his birth mother. But his obsession with the past unexpectedly catapults him into the future: He hitches a ride in the time machine of a mysterious teenager named Wilbur Robinson and winds up in the year 2037.

By all appearances, it seems as if Lewis has traveled not through time but down the rabbit hole and into an absurdist wonderland. Wilbur's eccentric extended family lives on a sprawling estate where a chorus of tuxedoed singing frogs serves as the in-house entertainment, and the domestic help includes a purple octopus and a C-3PO-ish robot. (Tom Selleck and Adam West are among the actors who provide voices for the family members.)

While Wilbur tries to keep the other Robinsons from finding out that his new friend is from a different era, Lewis is convinced he's found the perfect adoptive family.

The boys are also pursued, for initially obscure reasons, by a moustache-twirling baddie, known as Bowler Hat Guy and voiced by the film's director, Stephen J. Anderson. (The character was reportedly a late addition, one of several changes imposed on the film by executive producer John Lasseter, director of "Toy Story" and "Cars" and Disney's chief creative officer of animation since the company's acquisition of Pixar last year.)

As tends to be the case, the 3-D process is simply an excuse to have characters and objects lunge in the general direction of the viewer. (It's best showcased in a dinosaur chase sequence and a food fight involving a "meatball cannon.") In other words, the stereoscopic effect, achieved through state-of-the-art digital technology, is used in no more modern a fashion than it was in the golden age of 3-D: the 1950s.

Which is perhaps in keeping with the overall retro-futurist vibe. (The geometric, Art Deco cityscape is the most impressive visual element here.) The animators also mix in high-toned references to surrealist art, with direct nods to Rene Magritte in the form of a flying bowler hat and an elaborate topiary garden.

The screenplay, credited to seven writers, ties itself into knots when Lewis discovers the identity of the Robinson patriarch. Grown-ups, if not their kids, will notice a milder variation on the Oedipal complications of "Back to the Future," in which Michael J. Fox must fend off the advances of his mother. The usual time-travel dilemmas also ensue: if Bowler Hat Guy, who has stolen a time machine, changes the course of history for his own selfish purposes, the entire Robinson clan, not to mention much of the human race, could cease to exist.

Zippy if forgettable, "Meet the Robinsons" keeps the tone mildly tongue-in-cheek and ends on a dutifully inspirational note. The oft-repeated motto, lifted from the wisdom of Uncle Walt, is "Keep moving forward" -- advice that this basically old-fashioned film seems content to ignore.

"Meet the Robinsons." MPAA rating: G. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. In general release.

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