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Consumed With Hate: Meet the Robinsons

🎩 And Here's to You...

The Crime: Meet the Robinsons
The Guilty Party: John Bernstein and Michelle Spitz and Don Hall and Nathan Greno and Aurian Redson and Joe Mateo and Stephen Anderson
Overview: Disney writes a love-letter to itself in the form of an exhausting and incoherent time travel story.

Why I Hate It...

A good rule of thumb I've devised over the years is that the quality of a film is inversely proportional to the number of credited screenwriters. This is not universal by any stretch--a singular visionary can still produce a turd all by his or herself. But as the number creeps above two, you start to see diminishing returns. This has less to do with coherence of vision than it has to do with the nature of editing. As any writer who's done fifteen drafts of the first chapter of their novel can attest, there comes a point where revisions start actively making it worse. And in Hollywood, new revisions are tied to new screenwriters. Screenplay doesn't work? Bring in someone to re-write it. Hell, they do that sometimes even when it is working. So if a film has a laundry list of credited writers, which to my mind means 4 or more, that's a pretty good sign that the movie is not gonna be great.

Meet the Robinsons had seven. They're listed above. And those are the just the ones that have credits.

Meet the Robinsons is the story of a 12-year-old orphan and aspiring inventor named Lewis. He's invented a machine that will read your memories as a way to identify his birth-mother and he's trying to get it entered in a science fair but is thwarted by a cartoon villain with a sentient bowler hat and also another adolescent who claims to be a time-cop from the future. For no compelling reason, Lewis is taken to the future and the time machine breaks. Rather than bring in anyone who knows how time machines work, Lewis is promised that if he fixes the time machine he'll get to go back to the past to find his birth-mother. But first he invokes the title and meets The Robinsons, the family of the adolescent who kidnapped him to the future, and they are a collection of baffling quirks that each get an extended introduction.

Bowler hat guy turns out to be Lewis's roommate from the orphanage who is still upset over a baseball game that he blames Lewis for making him lose and has decided to get his revenge by stealing a time machine in order to... [checks notes]... steal a decades-old invention from a child, bring it to the future and pass it off as his own because this will somehow ruin Lewis's life? It's unclear. But it doesn't matter, because after he succeeds he's double-crossed by his bowler hat who then enslaves the planet. And also Lewis is actually the patriarch of The Robinson family, so his presence threatens the timeline and the very existence of his new bestie, the adolescent who kidnapped him. But he saves the day, fixes the time machine, reconciles with his past roommate, defeats the sentient bowler hat by deciding that he'll just never invent it, and wins the science fair, the grand prize of which is apparently getting adopted.

That's... a lot of story for a movie that's--sans credits--only 80 minutes long and in which nothing happens. I mean, something's always happening, but nothing ever feels like it matters. There are too many characters and half of them are indistinguishable from each other. No small feat, that, considering how over-the-top they are. That's the gal with the trains, that's the guy who paints, there's the fat one, there's the human cannonball guy, grandpa wears his clothes backwards for no goddamn reason, this one delivers pizzas. There's a minor sub-plot involving singing frogs who might also be gangsters. There are two guys who might only be heads living in flower pots. There's a squid for a butler and a robot who would be there for comic relief if everyone weren't seemingly there for comic relief. Oh, and there's the matriarch of the Robinson family, who is very clearly one of the girls from the science fair because every reveal in this story is telegraphed within an inch of its life. And there are at least three more Robinsons that I just don't care to talk about. With the exception of Fran, the matriarch, none of them feel even remotely like real characters. Most of them get less screen time than the frogs.

And that's because everything in this movie is so over-the-top that it strains credulity, even by the standards of children's animated films! It feels like that Key & Peele sketch about Gremlins 2, like there was a brainstorming session and every bonkers idea found its way into the script regardless of whether or not it actually served the story. Nothing ever attempts to reconcile theme (the oft-repeated "Keep moving forward") to character arc or character arc to plot. Supposedly 60% of the movie--including the entire ending--was scrapped when Disney bought Pixar in 2006, and then re-done with the Pixar people involved. And that might explain why the ending actually kind of works.

But that doesn't make up for the weird missteps leading up to it. Why does the villain's plot make so little sense that it needs to be explained over and over and yet it still never amounts to anything more definitive than "ruin Lewis's future"? Why is the T-Rex suddenly tame after he's no longer being mind-controlled? Why does a movie about time travel wait thirteen minutes before even hinting that time travel might be a thing in this universe? Why does the threat of non-existence only seem to apply to Wilbur? Why are we still doing the "leave a baby on the orphanage doorstep" thing? Why would flying autonomous hats need human slaves? How can a screenplay have seven writers on it and still feel like a first draft?!?!

And it's ugly. The character design is bad. Just bad. Lewis looks bad. His roommate is defined by these ridiculous dark circles under his eyes. Everyone is exaggerated and weird-looking. The villain--referred to almost exclusively as "bowler-hat guy"--is a cartoon villain down to the black cape and twirlable mustache. The film loves to linger on his bad teeth. Everything he does is gross and inept, and this makes it quite difficult to sympathize with him later when we find out who he is. Joe Robinson, the fat one, is not only mocked for his weight by the movie (if not the characters), he's literally infantilized, sucking his thumb when he can't get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The vistas are bland and empty. The futuristic buildings look like dull beige monoliths, all stylistically designed around the letter "R" because future Lewis Robinson has something of an edifice complex. And I understand that there are technical limitations, but this movie drew a lot of inspiration from The Incredibles, another film that trafficked in retrofuturism, and you know what? That movie never looked bland or empty.

And speaking of inspiration, this movie was meant as a love letter to Disney. There's a gag when they arrive in the future where they see a sign that says "Todayland." Supposedly the story was built on classic films like Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, and honestly, that would explain the uneven pacing and overall paper-thin structure. And then there's a pull-quote from Walt Disney himself at the very end that includes the "Keep moving forward" line and it feels like the worst kind of pandering.

And that's kind of funny to me, actually. This is a movie that blares its theme loudly about not getting hung up on failures, and yet it's hard to imagine anyone working on it thinking that they had actually made something worthwhile. It has all the hallmarks of a film that was tinkered with and tinkered with and re-shot and edited to death and eventually just shoved out the door even though everyone knew it was a stinker but they needed to move on to other projects and maybe they could recoup some of their costs.

Better luck, next time, Disney. Just keep swimming! I mean, keep moving forward, or whatever.

Next week, we confront the historical revisionism of Braveheart...

In CONSUMED WITH HATE, Kurt is revisiting media that he absolutely did not like one bit. See more posts.