`Robinsons' is a glimpse into the future (Disney's)

Wit is apparent in this well-worn story line

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March 30, 2007|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic

For all its focus on the future, Disney's Meet the Robinsons is really about coming to terms with the past. And good for it!

After too many years of foundering by the suits running the studio, of worrying so much about the future that they neglected what made the past so glorious, Robinsons suggests a happy balance is in sight. True, the manic energy that permeates the film suggests an effort to compensate for something (in this case, the lack of a compelling story or standout characters). But at least the filmmakers seem to be having fun, and there's enough wit to keep audiences of whatever age happy.

The plot centers on that oldest of kid's movie staples, the lonely, fish-out-of-water kid. Here, it's Lewis (voices of Daniel Hansen and Jordan Fry), an orphan who's too immersed in being a brainiac to get adopted. More than anything, Lewis yearns to find his birth mother, who he is sure will love him regardless. So he turns his tinkering toward the invention of a memory machine, which will help him recall the face of the woman who left him as a newborn.

Taking his invention to the school science fair, Lewis encounters a pair of oddballs. There's Wilbur (Wesley Singerman), who keeps watching him and inadvertently getting in his way. And there's this guy wearing a bowler hat, who's planning sabotage.

Both, it turns out, are from the future. As you might guess, Wilbur is there solely to ensure bowler-hat guy (director Stephen J. Anderson) doesn't get what he's after; think The Terminator, but without all the firepower. But Wilbur's not much of a defender, and when bowler-hat guy's mission is a success, the only thing left to do is return with Lewis to the future and try to make things right.

The future may be an odd place (one of the judiciously doled-out in-jokes adults will appreciate is the name of the amusement park of the future: Todayland), but not nearly as odd as Wilbur's family, the titular Robinsons. There's Grandpa, who wears his shirts backward; Uncle Art (Adam West), a pizza deliverer of heroic proportions; an octopus butler. ... You get the idea; the Robinsons are a bunch of misfits, and they welcome Lewis so unreservedly that he finally thinks he's found a place where he belongs. Only, of course, he doesn't.

Meanwhile, there's the small matter of bowler-hat guy and just what nefarious ends he has in mind.

Meet the Robinsons is, without question, a slapdash affair; with six credited screenwriters, all working off a book by William Joyce, how could it not be? But that's not always bad.

Word has it that Pixar guiding light John Lasseter reworked the script after being named head of Disney Animation, and here's betting that was a good thing; what had seemed in previews to be just another tale of embracing the oddball in all of us turned into something far funnier.

Outside of the irrepressible bowler-hat man, a rapscallion evildoer straight out of the Snidely Whiplash mode, the main characters are a pretty forgettable lot. Even the occasional good line - as when Mom Robinson tells Wilbur he's grounded "until you die" - flits by without leaving much of a mark.

The nonhuman population fares much better. A foursome of singing frogs seems a bit incongruous, but one never goes wrong with amphibians that can carry a tune. And there's a great sequence involving a Tyrannosaurus rex that may help explain why dinosaurs became extinct.

Ever since Disney announced that all its animated films would be done with computers, thus doing away with the traditional animation techniques that had produced classics including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Lion King, the studio has seemed adrift. It was as though the brain trust had decided that the problem was not the kinds of movies they were making, but how they were being made. Which is, of course, a fallacy of the first order: An animated film doesn't survive on its brushstrokes or on its pixels, but on its story and heart.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com >>>Meet the Robinsons (Disney) Starring the voices of Jordan Fry, Daniel Hansen, Wesley Singerman. Directed by Stephen J. Anderson. Rated G. Time 102 minutes.

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