Twelve-year-old orphan Lewis isn’t exactly an adoptive parent’s dream.
A nerdy science nut obsessed with concocting outlandish inventions, he invariably comes off poorly in adoption interviews—124 of them … and counting. When a malfunctioning sandwich maker sprays his latest would-be parents with peanut butter (they beat a hasty retreat), it seems like the last straw. “I have no future,” Lewis explains to his kindhearted orphanage director, Mildred. “No one wants me.” He also commiserates with his friend, roommate and resident baseball fanatic, Michael “Goob” Yagoobian, who shares his adoption-less plight. The only solution, the adolescent inventor decides, is to find his birth mother.
And so he sets to work on his most ambitious creation yet: A brain scanner that will help him remember her. Others, however, harbor nefarious plans for Lewis’ newest technological marvel. While debuting the scanner at a school science fair, it’s stolen by the diabolical and mysterious Bowler Hat Guy and his sidekick, Doris, a hat-like robot that sprouts mechanical spider legs and boasts other creepy abilities.
Enter Wilbur Robinson, a winsome boy from the future who unexpectedly arrives to help Lewis recover his invention—and to save the future of humankind while they’re at it. But tracking down the scanner is no easy task. To find it, the teen sidekicks must take on Bowler Hat Guy, Doris and a bizarre pack of futuristic and prehistoric characters—all while zooming through an enthralling, whimsical Jetsons-esque future.
In the process—and much to his delight—Lewis also discovers that he’s a perfect fit with Wilbur’s eccentric family, the Robinsons, who embrace the brainy boy as one of their own.
From the moment they meet him, the Robinson family is totally taken with Lewis’ personality and spirit. Their complete acceptance is the closest thing the orphan has ever had to unconditional love. When Mrs. Robinson kisses Lewis gently on the cheek, it validates his place in the family.
The Robinson family also inspires Lewis to persevere when his ongoing scientific experiments go awry. They exhort the young inventor to “let go of the past and keep moving forward.” Says one family member, “From failure you learn; from success, not so much.” Wilbur, too, believes deeply in Lewis and challenges him not to give up when all hope appears to be lost. Likewise, Mildred is depicted as a positive influence. Tender and soft-spoken, she gives the boy a more balanced perspective on the many prospective parents who’ve passed him over.
The film also stresses the importance of owning up to our mistakes. One character recognizes how a long-held grudge has destroyed his life. Another works to correct an error that inadvertently imperiled humanity’s very existence (something that always seems to happen in time travel movies).
Finally, Meet the Robinsons showcases the value of learning. Lewis is a bookworm and researcher. He pores over books and keeps a scientific journal. And even when he experiences significant setbacks, he keeps going (with a little encouragement from Wilbur, of course). Through it all, Lewis is confident that his adventures and endeavors will be a success: “All it takes is imagination, a little science,” he says, “and we can make the world a better place.”
That nod to the power of a “little science” leaves God out of the equation, of course. Similarly, Wilbur appropriates the biblical axiom, “The truth will set you free,” but doesn’t use it in a spiritual context. A character refers to feng shui (the Chinese practice of achieving harmony through the arrangement of space) and shiatsu (a holistic, Japanese massage therapy). Mention is also made of a fortune cookie.
We watch Grandma dancing and shaking her backside as Grandpa looks on in admiration. He explains euphemistically that she knows how to “bake them cookies.” Grandpa is also shown sans pants in long boxer shorts. The ticket for a tanning salon depicts a cartoonish woman in a bikini. A male gym teacher has exaggerated muscles and wears skin-tight clothes.
As you’d expect, slapstick shenanigans abound in Meet the Robinsons. Cartoon chaos includes Lewis and Wilbur crashing the time machine (they’re uninjured, of course), Doris tying up Lewis, a man’s head swelling in an allergic reaction to peanut butter, a science fair explosion that unleashes fire ants on the beefy gym teacher, etc. A gang of frogs is humorously depicted as an organized crime syndicate. There’s also a colossal food fight at the Robinson dinner table, and a character deflects meatballs and sausage links with kung fu alacrity.
More seriously, it’s implied (offscreen) that Goob gets beaten up by baseball teammates after he drops a game-winning catch. In a long sequence that feels like a mash-up of Toy Story and Jurassic Park, an angry dinosaur pursues Lewis, snapping repeatedly (and quite viciously) but narrowly missing him. Soon after, both boys are trapped in the dinosaur’s mouth, and we catch a big flash of the predator’s teeth.
Several foreboding scenes depict a grim alternate future where Doris’ hat-like robot minions rule the earth. Subjugated humans march as mindless zombies under their control, and dark imagery seems to pay deliberate homage to the R-rated visions of the future found in The Matrix and Terminator franchises, with hints of War of the Worlds tossed in as well.
A character stops just short of using the word “a–,” saying, “You can take your rule book and shove it right up your …” There’s also a similarly implied reference to the exclamation “h—.” Name-calling includes “smarty pants,” “geek,” “fruit head,” “booger breath,” “half-witted fool,” “pansy,” “bum” and “idiot.” The word “gosh” is used once, and Wilbur calls his mom “the old lady.”
Smartly dressed frogs drink at an outdoor bar, holding up what look like martini glasses. One of them eats a dragonfly, then quips, “That’s a good buzz.” At a Robinson dinner, family members raise goblets in a toast. Instead of downing their drinks, however, they splash them on their faces. A billboard pitches the supposedly memory-enhancing powers of leaves from the Chinese ginkgo biloba tree. A character gushes about the energizing effect of multiple caffeine patches that have kept her awake for days.
In the gross-out department, several characters trying to find a passage to the garage take a wrong turn and are shown emerging head-first from a toilet. Grandpa’s misplaced dentures turn up in a frog’s mouth. A character jokes about scurvy, tapeworms and cellulite.
Sounding like the evil Senator Palpatine coaching Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels, Bowler Hat Guy counsels a young boy, “Let hate be your ally, and you will be capable of wonderfully horrid things.” Bowler also hopes to “crush the dreams of a poor, little orphan boy.”
Several characters act deceptively or show disrespect to those in authority. Bowler tries to pass off the stolen scanner as his own at a meeting with corporate executives. Wilbur tells a significant lie to Lewis. Fearing punishment, the boys don’t confess to the elder Robinsons that they’ve broken the time machine, but opt instead to repair it themselves. Lewis dejectedly rebuffs Mildred, telling her he’s done with adoption interviews.
Wilbur uses decidedly strong words to describe the punishment he expects from his parents for his disobedience. First he says, “Mom and Dad will kill me.” Then he expands on that statement, saying that they will “bury me alive and dance on my grave.” (Mom does threaten to ground him until he dies.)
Walt Disney once said, “Around here … 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 ends with that quote, and, indeed, it does a pretty good job of moving forward—all the way into the distant future. But it also works hard to remind us that it’s a Disney project determined to look backwards to the more innocent fare of yesteryear.
After the old-school 3-D glasses are issued at the door, Robinsons, which is based on William Joyce’s children’s book, A Day With Wilbur Robinson, opens with a Donald Duck and Chipmunks short. And by surrounding an orphan with a caring, attentive family that accepts him just as he is, the film suggests that its young hero needs a home as much as Bambi or Dumbo ever did.
There’s a strong nod given to adoption and the related idea that our fulfillment doesn’t rest on birth heritage, but on the relationships we foster now. Little scientists-in-waiting could learn from the young hero’s inventive spirit and his bookish inclinations. Science-minded or not, all children would be wise to shake off their failures and, following Lewis’ lead, “keep moving forward.” Likewise, the concept of the future is used to good effect as we witness a before-and-after snapshot of several characters, first in childhood and then as adults. These fast-forward destinies demonstrate how the consequences of our actions can have long-term implications for ourselves and others.
Significant missteps in this G-rated movie are few, but several moments are disappointing. Implied profanity; winks at getting buzzed and “baking cookies”; rude name-calling; and occasionally dark, Terminator-like imagery are neither necessary nor wanted here.
So it seems Meet the Robinsons is a little like one of Lewis’ own inventions: It sputters a few times, but it generally does what it was made to do. In this case, that amounts to entertainment that attempts to straddle the past and the future, a meaningful take on family, and a confidence boost for imaginative kids.