The fact that Meet the Robinsons doesn't have a bunch of misfit celebrity-voiced animals banding together is in itself almost enough to recommend it.
After Chicken Little's sadly derivative stab at Shrek-style irreverence, Disney Animation brings Meet the Robinsons. Like its fully CGI-ed predecessor, it's aesthetically pleasing and plainly cartoonish. Though the film's characters are mostly humans, they're bouncy and cute in ways that recall classic hand-drawn animation.
Lewis (voiced by Daniel Hansen) is an orphan. The absence of parents has become so common in Disney films that it could almost go without mention, but Meet the Robinsons actually emphasizes this plot point with some degree of emotional reality. Lewis' parents aren't dead; he knows he was abandoned by his birth mother on the steps of an orphanage, and the movie shows him on ill-fated interviews with prospective foster parents.
The movie sustains a melancholy tone as Lewis retreats from hopes of adoption to work on his inventions. A science prodigy on the perpetual cusp of a breakthrough that never seems to materialize, Lewis makes gizmos that tend to jam, fall to pieces, or explode. At the all-important school science fair, he's approached by Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman), a boy his own age, who, like a junior Doc Brown, whisks him away on a time-travel adventure, where they make use of Lewis' science savvy.
From this point, the plot's machinations become difficult to describe. In the future, Lewis meets Wilbur's eccentric family, the boys are vaguely menaced by someone they call "Bowler Hat Guy," and they face some odd comic-relief business featuring singing frogs and a stray dinosaur. Seven screenwriters worked on adapting the children's book, A Day with Wilbur Robinson. Though that large number is not unusual for animated movies, Meet the Robinsons is so clamorous that you can practically hear the entire team fussing with jokes and dialogue, the soundtrack a jumble of exposition, feeble wisecracks, and verbal clichés, not to mention obvious music cues.
Through all this jumble of plot and noise, the film reiterates a central philosophy -- "Keep moving forward," a mantra of the Robinsons and, according to the credits, Walt Disney himself -- in a way that's is sort of sweet and traditionalist. This becomes evident in the film's visual invention. When the entire Robinson clan is introduced in the span of a few minutes, the visual overload -- weirdos in so many shapes and sizes -- is pleasurable. It's also threatened by the extra layer of aural mugging, with chatter outpacing wit by several laps.
Some animated chatter is fine, of course. Goob, Lewis' younger friend at the orphanage, is voiced by Matthew Josten with a semi-naturalist deadpan that gets some of the movie's biggest laughs just by not begging for them. Director Stephen J. Anderson and crew avoid the pitfall of cheesy pop-culture references that litter the likes of Shrek. And the fact that Meet the Robinsons doesn't have a bunch of misfit celebrity-voiced animals banding together is in itself almost enough to recommend it, as are the lovely futurescapes (sure to pop even more eyes in the film's select 3-D playdates).
If only the movie could calm down a little. Though its unmistakable message is not to fear failure and, yes, keep moving forward, Meet the Robinsons is caught in a peculiar time-warp, carrying Disney into the future but looking nervously over its shoulder at every step. Less heralded Disney films like The Emperor's New Groove (2000) and Lilo & Stitch (2002) have the kind of energy and humor that Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons are straining to duplicate. Maybe the problem isn't a fear of failure, but desperation for success.