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Meet the Robinsons

Robinsons — Hello, heroes

[rating:4]
Director: Stephen J. Anderson
Starring: Angela Bassett, Daniel Hansen, Jordan Fry

Meet the Robinsons“ is a light adventure story about the power of hope. In design and by design, it harks back to the ’50s-style shiny flying-car future that has mostly been replaced in science fiction by the grim and gritty worlds of “Bladerunner,” “The Matrix,” “Watchmen“ and “The Dark Knight Returns.”

Like last autumn’s rerelease of “Nightmare Before Christmas,” the animated feature is released in 3D in many markets. The filmmakers make good use of the technology without letting it overwhelm the story needs. “Meet the Robinsons” is just fine without 3D, but see it that way if you can.

The engaging, spunky movie follows Lewis, an orphan with a genius for invention that works against his desire to find a family — until he’s sucked into the future by two visiting time travelers. A time-hopping teenager recruits Lewis from a science fair because the time and place is also the destination of a mustache-twirling villain in a bowler hat who looks like the type of bad guy who tied spirited young girls to railroad tracks in the days of silent film. Along the way, you have to forgive a few kitchen-sink excesses such as singing frogs and dinosaur attacks.

There are a lot of familiar elements to this story, and not a lot of laughs, which are often expected in animated kids’ fare, especially one with a couple low-key musical sequences. The lack of broad comedy can be taken as a strength, though, as the film chugs along with a fast-paced and flashy adventure without the dancing clocks and wise-cracking animal sidekicks Disney has trained us to expect in an animated film.

Because the plot involves time travel, the determinedly critical viewer can punch holes in certain aspects of the story. Time travel is a mess, and in a film or story that really tried to present a solidly believable science fiction story, points are gonna be lost for minor silliness. But since this film works on the level of childhood adventure, only a cinematic scrooge would begrudge it for that. The chief advantage of the plot is that, as complicated as the story might seem, all but the youngest viewers should be able to follow it, and just a sentence or two of explanation (“The bad guy changed the future and now it’s scary”) should catch up younger kids easily enough.

Robinsons — Bring on the Bad Guy

Director Stephen Anderson should most be applauded for just bringing an entertaining story to the screen. There are no adult or contemporary in-jokes to distract — no future version of “American Idol,” for instance, or already-dated references to whatever movie or bubble-gum pop stars were hot when the animators were working. There’s a quick Disneyland gag in the futuristic landscape, and a quote flashed at the end of the film that points up Walt Disney himself as an inspiration, but nothing else to get in the way of fast-paced but clear storytelling, engaging animation and a background cast of goofy characters that manages to not overwhelm the tale. And while Disney will of course merchandise the heck outta this thing, there’s not the overwhelming stench of product-driven concepts that often accompanies kid-targeted material.

“Meet the Robinsons” is Anderson‘s first feature, and it’s a strong debut. In the future, he might focus his plots a little better (for starters by doing films that haven’t gone through as many writers as this one has — six credited in adapting a book by a seventh). The film’s jumpiness does sometimes suggest the kind of multidraft quilting that hurt last year’s “Fantastic Four.The movie does not hit the levels of absolute mastery seen in, say, “Beauty and the Beast,” “Toy Story” and “Finding Nemo,” but it’s miles better than “Cars“ and an entire universe of storytelling better than the cartoon abortion that was “Happily N’ever After.”