23 November 2010

DISNEY ANIMATION: THE FUTURE IS WHAT EVERYTHING'S ABOUT

An earlier version of this review can be found here.

By the end of 2005, Walt Disney Feature Animation was undeniably playing the obnoxious kid brother to Pixar Animation Studios, the company whose films had out-grossed WDFA every single year that they both released a film. Notwithstanding the reasonable success of Chicken Little, which grossed less than any Pixar film in history, even the ones that were almost a decade old, Disney knew it was licked, and in the face of Steve Jobs's intractable refusal to sign back up for another seven-picture deal of jolly abuse by the Mouse House, offered a staggeringly generous deal. Disney would buy Pixar outright, and in exchange, would put into writing their willingness to maintain a complete lack of editorial control - that is, as long as Pixar kept cranking out movies as critically acclaimed and as profitable as they had been, they could keep running themselves without Disney poking and asserting authority. In addition to guaranteeing Pixar a revenue stream and distributor, the deal made Steve Jobs the largest shareholder of Disney stock and a member of the board of directors; while John Lasseter would be promoted from Executive Vice President of Pixar to the new position of Chief Creative Officer, overseeing all animated production being done by by Pixar or by WDFA, which was at this time renamed Walt Disney Animation Studios, and given a nifty logo incorporating footage from the breakthrough Mickey Mouse short Steamboat Willie.

Most famously, Lasseter's new godhood resulted in the resurrection of the officially deceased traditional animation wing, resulting in 2009's triumphant The Princess and the Frog. It is not as frequently observed that Lasseter immediately flexed his muscles on Disney's CGI features then in development, making certain that there would be no more Chicken Littles, and for that he can be forgiven all other things; let there be Cars 3 and A Bug's Life 2 and Finding Nemo Again if that is what must happen, but for standing athwart the history of Disney animation and saying, "Stop", Lasseter has forever earned a free pass from me.

The first project he turned to was an adaptation of William Joyce's 1990 picture book A Day with Wilbur Robinson. At an early screening of the work in progress, he found no end of tiny problems, the most significant of which was the film's weak, unthreatening villain; he gave the film's director Stephen Anderson his notes, and by the time that the film saw release as Meet the Robinsons about a year later, more than half of the material had been scrapped and redone.

Whether those changes ended up saving the film is rather hard to say. Failing to pass $100 million at the box office, it charmed audiences less than Chicken Little apparently did, and this despite a far more robust 3-D roll-out than that film had (in fact, Robinsons was Disney's first film built from the ground up to take advantage of the new RealD technology) and earned less than half of the same year's Ratatouille, which was itself counted something of a minor disappointment for Pixar; but Robinsons enjoyed sturdier reviews than Chicken Little - not remotely up to the standard of Disney's various golden ages, but sturdy.

It still doesn't take much bravery to suggest that the film is a bit dodgy, though it improves quite a bit with distance. Reviewing it at the time of its release, I breezily asserted that the only merit it had was its showy 3-D (this was in the days before such things were ubiquitous to the point of being profoundly disgusting), and had done with it. Upon re-watching it three years later, I was humbled to find that, on the contrary, there was a good bit to recommend it and 3-D was emphatically not one of the reasons: in fact, the added dimensionality and spectacle serves if anything to wreck one of the best things about the movie, which is its colorful, imaginative design. With objects floating here and there in all planes, it's much harder to actually pay attention to how lovingly everything has been crafted, and the notorious tendency of 3-D glasses to darken and desaturate the image means that all the visual buoyancy which is the film's most appealing trait was squashed.

So consider me altogether grateful that I was obliged to give Meet the Robinsons a second chance, because, if it is not "successful" in certain important ways - I stand by my initial assessment that the middle is terrifyingly manic - it's awfully lovely. It is not as garish as Chicken Little, though it is just as colorful; and the overall design mentality proudly looks to the past, in the service of creating a vision of the future that feels like it came out in the 1940s, not the 2000s.

The story begins in fine Disney fashion, with an earnest and quirky orphan, Lewis (initially voiced by David Hansen, with the post-Lasseter additions voiced by Jordan Fry), whose desire to find a new family doesn't quite outweigh his desire to become a great inventor; apparently the boy's desire to impress prospective parents with his fantastic gadgets has the effect of scaring them off instead. Drawing near to his 13th birthday, Lewis has essentially given up hope, but in a misguided attempt to comfort him, the orphanage owner Mildred (Angela Bassett) inspires the boy to create a memory scanner, which will allow him to review his own newborn impressions of his birth mother, in the hope of finding her.

This invention is Lewis's contribution to the local science fair, and on the day that he's ready to make his grand debut, two odd visitors show up: a manic teen boy named Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman), and a gangly, pale-faced fellow in a bowler hat (director Stephen Anderson, doing double duty only when the difficulty in casting the role threatened to delay production). Both of these individuals are apparently from the future, and they've both come to this date because of the science fair: the Bowler Hat Guy wants to ruin Lewis's invention and claim it as his own, while Wilbur wants to make absolutely certain that the presentation works, and that Lewis captures the attention of Dr. Krunklehorn (Laurie Metcalf), a hyper-stimulated representative of Inventco. Apparently Lewis's invention is a major turning point in the development of the future, and these two opposing forces have very different ideas as to what the future should look like.

Lewis will have none of it until Wilbur proves his story, by revealing his flying time machine and taking the boy to Wilbur's own present (it's nowhere stated onscreen, but the film is meant to take place in 2007 and 2037). Things go badly, and Wilbur wrecks the craft, temporarily stranding Lewis in the wrong time; but it's not so terrible as all that, because Lewis thus gets to meet the whole crazy Robinson family, living in a big house of kid-friendly surrealism. Much to the dismay of Wilbur and his robot helper Carl (Harland Williams), the only other person who knows that one of the time machines was stolen, that Lewis is from the past, or that the space-time continuum is in danger, the Robinsons eagerly welcome Lewis as one of their own. There are, of course, complications, in that the Bowler Hat Guy, and his sentient, robotic bowler hat, have returned to 2037 to finish what they couldn't do in 2007: steal Lewis's idea and utterly disgrace him. And that leads into the chain of expected and necessary plot connections, for it is a time travel movie, and if it doesn't have an airtight story of 4th-dimensional mechanics - which Meet the Robinsons most unabashedly does not - then it's duty-bound to instead present all sorts of contrived throughlines between the two periods, the better to wow us with amazement.

That's yet to come, and for a surprisingly large chunk of its running time, Robinsons does absolutely nothing else besides spend time with its wacky titular family. I like to imagine that this is the part of the film making up that 40% that Lasseter left alone, and further, that he left it alone because he didn't have the energy to deal with it. For it's kind of awful, in the way of the most idiotic, unpleasant kinds of children's entertainment. There are flashes of genuine humor - despite myself, I giggle rather too hard at the joke where grandpa Bud Robinson (also Stephen Anderson) blithely reveals that "baking cookies" is the family's euphemism for disco dancing, and the mid-film recap in which Wilbur gives Lewis a pop quiz on the tortured relationships among the Robinsons is a corker of screwball banter, sold by Singerman's rat-a-tat delivery, of all things (not at all bad for a 15-year-old; too bad that he's dropped out of filmmaking since then).

Those flashes are just that, though, flashes, and their surroundings are a seemingly endless feel of hyper jokes played at the level of a toddler hopped up on Pixy Stix. It's not that the jokes aren't funny per se: the inherent notion of a man whose domineering wife is a puppet kind of works, as does the casting of Adam West as an Adam Westian intergalatic pizza delivery man. There's a whole bit with a tyrannosaurus rex that has a pretty nifty punchline, and some genuinely delightful visual jokes peppered throughout. It's just that film is so concerned with being up, Up, UP! all the time, ratcheting the energy higher with every new scene, that it's hard to keep pace with even the funniest jokes. It's enough to make the legendarily high-pitched opening sequences of Moulin Rouge! look sedate in comparison.

And even that doesn't take into account the number of jokes that are miserable failures on the face of it, either those too stupid and lame to be anything but a committee-produced attempt at distracting children, or the ones which are just weird and out-of-place. In terms of the latter, I am particularly thinking of a strange, dismally unfunny moment when the Robinson's spaghetti dinner turns into a parody of a badly-dubbed kung fu movie, complete with grainy, desaturated "film stock". How this fits into the film's marketing scheme I cannot possibly begin to say; it suggests nothing so much as late-night viewing of Kill Bill, Vol. 1 during the story drafting stages.

But that's just the middle: all told, only about half of the film is dreadfully manic. True, much of what's left over is pablum (even for a story about a plucky, tow-headed orphan, this is awfully gooey stuff, particularly in the way-too-neat ending). Frankly, Lewis isn't much of a protagonist: he's active only in that he is intelligent, but spends virtually all of the film being done to, gawking at all of the wonderful things he sees in the future. He is, in this respect, a vessel for the audience. Just not a terribly good one.

There are still some truly wonderful bits and pieces on the edges, though. The Bowler Hat Guy, though woefully incapable as a villain (if this is the more threatening version of the character, I shudder to think what he must have looked like at first), is a strangely appealing, bumbling antagonist. Mentally undernourished and wholly reliant on his mechanical hat, whom he fondly calls "Doris", he is even a sad figure, particularly once we are given to hear his backstory; meanwhile, his awkward, pathetic attempts at villainy are the most consistent source of humor in the movie, even if it is humor oddly out of place with the urgent zaniness seen elsewhere. This mismatch of humorous tones, which are also mismatched with the sentimental parts, remains one of Robinsons's greatest flaws: it can't seem to make up its mind about what kind of movie it wants to be, and to what audience. But this is not Bowler Hat Guy's fault; his sad-sack awfulness rises above the limitations of his vehicle.

By the time the movie makes a lumbering, explicit grab for treacly earnest, ending with a moderately appropriate Walt Disney quote, it's hard to take it seriously, even though it is utterly, guilelessly sincere, competing only with Lilo & Stitch out of all the studio's films of the'00s in terms of how much it wears its heart on its sleeve. Sincerity is not a good enough substitute for actual merit, unfortunately, and while its whiz-bang vision of the future would fit in very well with Walt's pie-eyed optimism (expressed in such Utopian visions as his idealised dream of EPCOT that has very little to do with the theme park which opened under that name 15 years after his death), it's terribly slight, and not enough to support a whole feature.

Even so: it's a darn pretty movie, with an aesthetic every bit as complete as Chicken Little (where the unified aesthetic was the only good thing about the whole project), while significantly more mature and ambitious. If nothing else, there's the film's simple but effective use of color gradations to sort amongst its three time periods: from the sepia-toned period of Lewis's infancy, the foundational moments of his personal myth-

-to the muted, warm colors of the present, the most realistic of the three settings, but touched by gauzy, painterly touch-

-to the day-glo future, where every color pops so much it almost burns.

Again, this is not the most original or insightful way of using three distinct sets of imagery to make a narrative point; but it works, and it's a lot more impressive than anything going on in Chicken Little.

While the future scenes are the pushiest and most attention-getting, they're not alone in being rather well-crafted. There are a number of shots in 2007 that are quite delicate and beautiful, creating a city that feels like an amalgam of the whole 20th Century in its lines and graphic elements. One of my favorite parts of the design is the subtle weaving of emotional hints into the sets; there's a lot of foreshadowing done this way, but there are also moments, such as this, after Lewis has just alienated his latest potential parents, and a billboard in the distance (the upper right, specifically), quietly mocks him with the word "Mother".

Of course, the future scenes are quite impressive, design throwbacks that feel effective in no small part because of how thoroughly the "present" sequences have left us untethered to any particular time period - in the same way that Lewis's city has a certain aura of contemporary timelessness mired in the pre-WWII years, and in the way that the whole "orphan" scenario feels oddly archaic, so does the future world feel a lot more like a pulp comic from half a century before the movie is ostensibly set. It's a tribute to that long-ago time when sci-fi was an innocent genre, bright and scrubbed and shiny and inexplicably art deco. Since the whole movie is ultimately set up as a love letter to Walt Disney's sense of boyish wonder, it's probably easiest to sum it up: this is a Disneyfied vision of progress stuck in what people hoped for back in the 1950s.

This isn't a problem; it's actually kind of restfully appealing, although I can't say how it works for the film's ostensible target audience, kids who wouldn't know '50s pulp if it pulled a ray gun on them.

There's a dark side to the plasticky retro look of the design, though, which is the plasticky retro look of the characters. They're all a bit rubbery and stiff, and most of them have impossible rigid hair. It's reminiscent of the earliest Pixar films, when they were working the kinks out, or the side characters in some DreamWorks pictures, given little attention by the animators simply in the interests of time and money. But these are meant to be our protagonists, and they're deeply unsettling and artificial-looking, and given how little work the screenplay does the make them sympathetic, this proves to be fatal to Meet the Robinsons, which can be as shiny as it wants but never resolves the problem of telling a middling story with shrill energy and repellent characters.

Overall, however, Meet the Robinsons was a step in the right direction. It fails in many ways; but it fails in no way quite as hideously as Chicken Little. It looks better, it's not as vengefully inane, and the bland pop songs of the earlier film are replaced by mediocre originals by a slumming Rufus Wainwright. Disney animation wasn't out of the woods, but it no longer looked like a wounded animal that had to be put out of its misery, just in time for the company's third consecutive attempt to get CGI right; and the third time, as they say, would be the charm.

4 comments:

Robert Hamer said...

I'm glad to see you turn around a little on Meet the Robinsons, as I thought you were too harsh on the film in your first review. So if you were to re-score it, would it be a 6/10, 7/10 maybe?

Matt said...

Interesting. I think I may have to check this out, and I'd originally planned to completely pass it over. Rather enjoy the way you keep getting me to look at stuff I'd normally ignore.

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

5/10, per the Disney ranking page. Let's not get carried away.

Zach K said...

"...let there be Cars 3 and A Bug's Life 2 and Finding Nemo Again if that is what must happen..."

http://www.hypable.com/2014/03/18/incredibles-2-cars-3-disney-announcement/

Thoughts?