SPOILER ALERT FROM THE START
Time travel is a funny old thing. There’s a moment in Meet the Robinsons where the main character is almost adopted by his future wife and it’s just a bit weird. The ramifications of all the time travel shenanigans in Disney’s sparky, enjoyable sci-fi are the kind that make your head hurt and cause you to question whether it all made sense in the first place. For instance – and this will only make any sense if you have seen the film – if older Goob had never met younger Goob and told him to be bitter would any of this have happened? But how would older Goob have known to be bitter in the first place in order to tell his younger self to remain that way? How come the exact same version of the future is restored after Lewis fixes everything (with some additions) given the chaos theory that the rest of the film seems to have employed? Surely the very act of meeting himself would cause a gigantic shift in the makeup of the world he visits?
Not everything seems to have been thought through here, but then the same accusation can be levelled at excellent time travel films like Back to the Future and Looper. When time travel is thought through too much, you get irredeemably boring films like Primer. Time travel films have to be taken with a generous pinch of salt and a healthy suspension of disbelief and if you ignore the questions raised by the dubious teleological mechanics of the plot then Robinsons is a whole lot of fun. The fact that these questions are being raised in the first place demonstrates that it is the most narratively ambitious film in the canon yet, a smart story that aims for Pixar and just about hits it. It is rather telling, then, that this is the first Disney film with John Lasseter as the creative head of animation.
This ambition makes for a film that is almost breathless in its execution, zipping at a considerable pace through the main events of the story. Opening on a rainy night in some nondescript American city, an anxious mother leaves her son on the steps of an orphanage before fleeing at a noise. From there the young Lewis’ abandonment issues and love of invention are quickly established, before he is whisked into the future and meets a family with a surname you can probably guess. It’s so speedy that you barely stop to think about the narrative inconsistencies and that’s the point; this is sharp yet silly fun from a studio that had, for several years by this point, been severely lacking it. There’s also an unusually ambiguous ending as the identity of that mother in the rain is never established, which leaves the film with a peculiarly melancholic aftertaste that the makers of Chicken Little would never dare to attempt.
Thematically it’s slightly immature but it marks a giant step forward from the facile daddy issues of their last film. Both the hero and villain are orphans, a quick shortcut to emotional problems and themes of isolation, abandonment and family. Lewis’ desire to belong to something feels familiar, but it is balanced nicely by the theme of failure as a necessity in success. The biggest appeal of the future family is that they celebrate his failure as a step on the road to success. It’s a celebration of human invention and progress that lands an unexpectedly emotional punch with a closing tribute to Walt Disney, who inspired the central motto of the film: Keep Moving Forward.
After a few films of languishing in the doldrums of mediocrity and after the atrocious Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons marks the start of a new era for Disney that combines wit and ideas as well as classier, smoother animation to convey them. Lasseter’s contribution was a lifeline to a struggling studio and Robinsons pleasingly hints that the once great House of Mouse was still capable of brilliance.