There has been a tradition, in the post-“Little Mermaid” era of Disney animation, to style the animated characters to resemble the actors who provide the voice.
The teacup in “Beauty and the Beast,” for example, has the features of Angela Lansbury, and Genie in “Aladdin” zaps around with the franticness of Robin Williams. The tradition extended to the CGI-era Pixar movies, where the tow truck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy looks a lot like Larry the Cable Guy.
Meet the Robinsons
Angela Bassett, Spencer Fox, Jordan Fry, Tom Kenny, Harland Williams
(Disney; US theatrical: 30 Mar 2007 (General release); UK theatrical: 30 Mar 2007 (General release); 2007)
So it might surprise people who stick around for the credits of “Meet the Robinsons”—the movie the studio hopes will establish the technological leap that is Disney Digital 3D—that the voice of Mildred, the frumpy, matronly caretaker at the orphanage, belongs to the anything-but-matronly Angela Bassett, a sophisticated beauty whose figure is the antithesis to Mildred’s eggish shape.
“I guess they did give me a pretty big butt,” says Bassett, in Detroit last week to talk up “Meet the Robinsons,” which opens Friday. “But at least they don’t have her stick it out at the audience with the 3D. She does preserve some dignity.”
Bassett, the mother of 14-month-old twins with her actor-husband, Courtney Vance, did not take the “Robinsons” job because she wanted to make a movie that her children could see—the motivation for many actors.
“I’ve done a lot of movies I’ll be proud for kids to watch when they’re old enough,” says Bassett, who won acclaim as singer Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do With It”; Betty Shabazz in “Malcolm X” and “Panther”; and civil rights icon Rosa Parks in the TV movie “The Story of Rosa Parks.”
Bassett says she took this role for the same reasons she selects all of her movies.
“For one, it was a character I had never played before, which is always important to me, to keep me sharp. But it was also the desire to be part of a well-written movie that has something really positive to say about families and about all the different ways there can be to make a family,” says Bassett. Her daughter Bronwyn and son Slater were delivered by a surrogate mother.
“Meet the Robinsons” was inspired by a children’s book by William Joyce, “A Day with Wilbur Robinson,” about a little boy who is invited to spend a day with a friend, only to discover Wilbur lives with an extended family of inventors and eccentric individuals and dreamers, served and abetted by robots and an octopus butler, and entertained by a band of singing frogs.
“The illustrations place the encounter in this kind of madcap, stylized future that was actually very Disney-esque, like the 1950s vision of Tomorrowland,” says director Stephen J. Anderson, who began his career at Disney as an artist-animator and found his true calling in the story department. He worked as a storyboard artist on “Tarzan” and artistic and story supervisor on “The Emperor’s New Groove” and “Brother Bear.”
The book didn’t exactly tell a story, Anderson says, “so Jon Bernstein, the original writer on the project, came up with the idea of it being about an orphan who was a little genius inventor, who becomes obsessed with discovering who his birth mother was and why she gave him up.
“I’m adopted, and I had those same feelings as a kid, so when I read the script in 2002, it really spoke to me. I became really passionate about getting it made, ” He says
The finished story has the child, Lewis, who Bassett calls “an adorable little Einstein,” feeling rejected by a series of potential parents who just don’t get him. Determined to find his real mother and certain she will love him, he invents something called a “memory scanner” that will allow him to recall his infant memories so he can track her down.
He enters it in the school science fair, where it seems to be a failure. But when he is whisked away in a time machine by a joyriding 13-year-old from the future named Wilbur Robinson, Lewis discovers that the machine has been stolen by the villainous Bowler Hat Guy (voiced by Anderson). If it is not retrieved, the space-time continuum will be breached and the world as Lewis knows it will no longer exist.
“It was really early on that we began to consider doing this in 3D,” says Anderson. “For one thing, the futuristic design really lent itself to the 3D process. In this, it’s really about bringing you into this world you’ve never been to before, putting you right in the middle of it. It’s a movie about a future that we are able to imagine and even recognize, and I’m truly convinced that 3D is the future of films, and that animation is what will acclimate audiences to the experience.”
The problem with reintroducing 3D is that theater owners are wary of embracing a technology that requires them to install new equipment. Still, “Meet the Robinsons” will be seen in 3D on 600 screens. The film will be projected on more than a thousand more in the traditional flat style.
Bassett, who saw the finished film just a couple of weeks ago, says she was knocked out by the presentation. “It just transports you, it takes you somewhere brand new,” she says.
“But you know, the best part was that after about half an hour, it just became natural to me, and then I concentrated more on the story, and that was what I really loved, the story of this boy who finds a family all his own.
“At the end, I was really tearing up, and I’ve done a lot of heavy drama on stage, I’m a real tough customer. At least I thought I was. But here I was crying, and I knew the story, I knew what happened. It didn’t matter. It was all brand new.”