Before Pixar took away their crown and became the new kings of animated film, Disney was the one to beat. Creative stories, catchy songs, and likeable characters were the trademarks of a Disney film. But as Disney began to wander from the path of success to the highway of excess, the magic began to fade. Thinking they could do no wrong, they lost sight of the “big picture,” i.e., they lost sight of the simple storytelling that had endeared them to so many people. In a sense, Meet the Robinsons is an admission of this loss of focus and a promise of sorts to “keep moving forward.”

The movie begins and ends with a nod to the Disney past. As my son and I opted to see the normal 2-D version, our movie opened with a 1938 “Steamboat Willie” black and white short. The 3-D version of the film opened with the 1953 Chip and Dale classic “Working for Peanuts.” The film closes with an onscreen quote from Walt Disney himself that neatly brings the whole experience full circle. While the movie itself has a simple, straightforward story, the temptation to resist nonsensical rabbit trails throughout the main body proved too great to the producers. Meet the Robinsons shines when it sticks to the basics, but when it deviates it becomes what I refer to as “visual postmodernism”—doing something just because you can regardless of how it fits within the context of the story.

Change the Past, Change the Future

Lewis is a twelve-year old orphan who has all but given up his hope of ever being adopted. He is a brilliant kid who invents lots of little contraptions, but is a bit overzealous in his attempts to get potential parents to want to adopt him. When his sandwich machine goes haywire at the beginning of the movie and begins covering the current prospective family with peanut butter and jelly, we get a pretty good idea of how every interview prior to this one has gone. Lewis knows that the chances of getting adopted dwindle with every day that passes; parents want to adopt babies and toddlers, not teenagers. Faced with this despair he focuses his efforts on making a time-machine for the school science fair. He thinks that if he can go back in time to when his mother secretly dropped him off at the orphanage front door, he can convince her to keep him. Lewis is constantly looking backward, wishing he could change the past, because the future looks too bleak and depressing without a family to share it with.

To the scientific mind, Lewis’s goal of altering his past in order to secure a better future makes perfect sense. He has already lived the life that resulted from his mother leaving him on the orphanage front porch, so he knows where that leads. But if he could somehow change the events of twelve years ago and his mother would instead keep him, he would not have to live his present life with the possibility of not being adopted. He could transform his present and his future by simply modifying one event in the past. What Lewis never stops to think about though are the unintended consequences that changing one event in the past may have. There is no guarantee that even if his mother decides to keep him in the past, that his present will be any better—in fact, it could very well be worse. The so-called “butterfly effect”[1] would come into play where one change actually introduces many other deviations from the intended result.

Before Lewis can actually try out his machine however, a nervous boy about his own age named Wilbur Robinson shows up warning him about the “bowler hat guy.” As it turns out, Wilbur is actually from the future and has come back to Lewis’s time to recruit his help. It is at this point in the film that the animation hijinks begin and the story veers way off-track. It is also at this point in the review that I would like to make a detour of my own and discuss some of the problems I see in what passes for entertainment for children.

Visual Nonsense

We are often told that children (and even many adults) today have an attention span of ten seconds or less. If a television show (or a movie) loses the attention of the viewer for any longer than a minute or more, there is little hope of re-capturing it (or so we’re told). This is usually one of, if not the main, driving force behind the music, color, pacing, angle, etc. used in any particular media offering, whether it’s a Coke commercial or a feature-length film. The idea is to hold the attention by overtly confronting the senses on a regular basis. This comes at a price though. For the eyes and ears to be continually assaulted, the brain must not be engaged. An active brain is a sure-fire way to lose a viewer. If someone has to stop and think about what they just saw and heard, they will miss what comes next. Enough studies have been done to prove a causal link between media consumption and behavior. For example, the editorial staff at the New York Times scolded Shrek for sending a mixed message to children. On one hand he is appearing in public service ads commending exercise to youngsters, all the while his image is plastered all over candy boxes, cookie packages, and soft drink cans.[2] The point is clear: Shrek influences behavior, both good and bad.

The same argument can be made about the diminished attention span in children. A study done at the University of Washington that was reported in the journal Pediatrics, made a causal link between decreased attention spans and early exposure to television. The study found that increased viewing of television by 1-3 year-olds was an accurate predictor of a decreased attention span by age 7.[3] Again the point is clear: if you gear your media towards a shorter attention span, you will get exactly that. This, however, only makes the job of the media producer that much more difficult in the not too distant future, when even the current attention span is shortened. Of course, this is where we find ourselves today. Instead of forcing the audience to follow at a given pace, the modern producer/director—especially in animated features—will cater to this shortcoming and give the film a whole basketful of bells, whistles, and other general nuisances, designed to hold the attention of the younger viewer. Unfortunately, Meet the Robinsons falls prey to this trap and about half the movie is nonsensical candy for the eyes and junk food for the mind.

The really interesting thing about this approach of “visual postmodernism” is that it works for a bit. Some of the children in the theater who were somewhat bored with the story elements of the film were actually re-captured—for a moment. Once the initial attraction of the rapid, vapid, and mostly musical visual postmodernism wore off, the same children fell back into their disinterested, glassy-eyed stupors. Once the chicanery ended and the story picked back up, it became evident to those of us who weathered the storm of nonsense that the best was indeed saved for last. The last twenty minutes of Meet the Robinsons is very heavily Pixar-influenced. In fact, Toy Story and Cars director John Lasseter is credited as an executive producer. The end of the movie gives the impression that Disney has seen the Pixar handwriting on the wall and is willing to learn some lessons in order to compete in the marketplace of quality animation. Just as Lewis realizes that changing the past is no guarantee of a desired future, so has Disney. The Walt Disney quote that comes onscreen at the end of the movie serves as a confirmation:

Around here, however, 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.

Lewis’s trip to the future brings him face to face with a familiar voice that commends him to “keep moving forward.” Good advice. As sinful humans we are prone to dwell in the past, on what “could have been.” While Jesus taught his first century hearers to not worry about tomorrow, He also admonished them to be ready and plan. He never told them to dwell on the past though. We can’t change the past and we can’t change the present, the only thing that we can change is the future. And the key to the future is our present state of mind. If we dwell on yesterday, tomorrow will be remarkably similar to today, but if we plan for tomorrow, today is really just the first in a series of tomorrows. 

“The concept of the butterfly effect is sometimes used in popular media dealing with the idea of time travel, usually inaccurately. Most time travel depictions simply fail to address butterfly effects. According to the actual theory, if history could be “changed” at all, the mere presence of the time travelers in the past would be enough to change short-term events (such as the weather) and would also have an unpredictable impact on the distant future, so that no one who travels into the past could ever return to the same version of reality he or she had come from.”  (From Wikipedia entry for “butterfly effect.”)
[2] “Cutting Shrek Down to Size,” NYTimes, April 28, 2007. [3] Dimitri A. Christakis, et al, “Early Television Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems in Children,” Pediatrics (April 2004), 708-713