Disney has changed over the past few decades. To many fans, this company once lauded for its high quality and artistic innovation has become a shadow of its former self.
There’s been a lot of highs, lows, and mehs for modern Disney films, and we’re going to look at a few of them this month. Welcome back to Disneytember.
For me, there’s four distinct categories of Disney films: the all-time favorites, the “Take-It-Or-Leave-It’s,” the “Wow, I hated that’s,” and, the most curious: the ones that make me say, “I always forget just what a great film this is.”
There’s something particularly special about films in this last category: the ones that stick with me as much as a happy dream. I can barely remember details, but I still have this pervading sense of delight when I hear these film titles.
More often than not, I can’t quite phrase why I loved these movies so much until I’m in the process of rewatching them. Suddenly, scenes that had faded from memory come back in full color and inspire me anew. Characters that feel like dear family friends who I haven’t seen since I was small come back, and I find things are just as good between us as they were before.
The unique characteristic of these movies allow me to view them almost anew each time. And the one I love the most is the forgotten Disney gem Meet the Robinsons.
I remember advertisements for this film playing in abundance on Disney Channel promos, but the film came and went with very little fanfare. I never heard anyone talk about it. I never heard what it was about (except that it took place “in the future,” as the promos liked to constantly point out). So when I finally watched it myself, I had very few expectations.
I had no idea I’d discover a film with so much character, heart, and unlikely suspense.
Actually, all of Meet the Robinsons’s qualities are fairly unlikely and unexpected. While a good portion of the film does take place in the future, time travel isn’t the central focus. No, its true core is a ton of heart and a loving respect for Walt Disney himself.
Meet the Robinsons is a story about family. And while you could probably say that about most Disney films, family truly is the heart and soul of Meet the Robinsons, making it feel just as unique as the titular family.
The remainder of this post will contain spoilers for
Meet the Robinsons
The film’s protagonist is Lewis, a brilliant twelve-year-old boy whose mother gave him up for adoption when he was just a baby. No other potential parents seem to be quite the right fit for Lewis, so the boy is determined to find the one person he’s convinced will be: his birth mother. Lewis invents a device that will display his long-forgotten memories of the day his mother abandoned him, hoping to discover her true identity.
However, Lewis’s plans get derailed when a mysterious time-traveler named Wilbur Robinson kidnaps him and takes him to the future. Wilbur promises to bring Lewis to his mom as soon as Lewis helps him with a little project: Wilbur accidentally lost one of his father’s time machines, and he needs Lewis’s help to recover it.
These two characters play off each other so well. Their banter is funny, and the characters are well-written and charming. Lewis is an intelligent inventor, but he never once comes off as standoffish or painfully over-intelligent; he’s not an insufferable genius, just a kid: a tenderhearted boy who’s down-to-earth and practical and just wants to be wanted. Wilbur, on the other hand, is an excellent foil: an over-dramatic smooth-talker whose mouth moves a little faster than his brain sometimes. Where Lewis is methodical, Wilbur flies by the seat of his pants; where Lewis is honest and innocent, Wilbur is quick-thinking and isn’t above fudging the truth to get what he needs. (Fortunately for Lewis, Wilbur’s also a pretty terrible liar.) In the end, despite their differences, both characters need each other to find and recover the missing time machine.
Wilbur and Lewis are the most developed and grounded characters, but the whole cast is quirky and charming in their own way. Even the most minor characters stand out despite hardly having any screen time!
Part of Wilbur’s flair for the dramatic stems from his absolutely zany family, who all live under the same roof. Wilbur’s grandfather Bud draws faces on the back of his balding head and puts his clothes on backwards. One uncle is a pizza delivery guy who poses as a superhero. His great-aunt has a life-sized remote-controlled train on tracks that run through the house. Another great-aunt is an actual puppet. Wilbur’s mother and his Uncle Gaston love to use food as weapons in kung fu battles against each another. And don’t forget the doormen, Uncles Spike and Dimitri, who live in potted plants just outside the front door. Heck, even Wilbur’s best friend is the family robot, the overly-paranoid and snarky Carl.
Though Lewis only spends a brief amount of time with the Robinsons, you could easily write an entire TV series following the misadventures of that cast. While they don’t get much screentime, each one is colorful, unique, and fun.
It’s little wonder, then, that Lewis finds himself longing to be part of a family like theirs. And when Franny, Wilbur’s mother, offers to adopt Lewis, it seems like that’s exactly what will happen.
But with one fell swipe, Wilbur reveals the story’s biggest plot twist: Lewis is—or rather will eventually become—Wilbur’s father. It was Lewis who had invented the time machines and many other creations that had revolutionized the future… and one that would prove to be a terrible mistake.
As an adult, Lewis had invented DOR-15 (“Doris”), a bowler hat-shaped robot, to assist mankind. But Doris seethed at the thought of serving mankind when she had visions of world domination. Doris managed to escape Lewis’s workshop, scheming with another of Lewis’s nemeses to steal Lewis’s time machine, alter the future, and take over the world.
And here we come to the greatest part of the film, arguably one of the best Disney villains to date: Michael “Goob” Yagoobian, known to Lewis as “The Bowler-Hat Guy.”
A slinking, scrawny, pasty man designed to look like the most cliché mustache-twirler you’ve ever seen, “Bowler-Hat Guy” hates Lewis and everything he’s made. Consumed by jealousy of Lewis’s success while he himself lived in squalor, Bowler-Hat Guy seeks to ruin Lewis’s life and steal all that success for himself.
|The Disney Elite on Tumblr / Disney 2007|
Bowler-Hat Guy burns with hatred for Lewis, but he’s completely incompetent and naive. His grand plans for revenge involve throwing toilet paper and eggs at Lewis’s office. Bowler-Hat Guy keeps his evil plans in an easily-accessible checklist in a unicorn binder. He’s child-like, easily delighted, and really terrible at the villain gig, botching almost every one of Doris’s schemes. He’s a bowl of delightful and hilarious contradictions, and the fact he doesn’t appear on more Top Disney Villains lists is almost criminal.
As if he couldn’t get better, he’s also a key part of the film’s core theme.
Meet the Robinsons may be a film about family, but it’s also a film about how to handle failure.
As a perfectionist, I struggle to let things go. With each new rejection, I feel like I want to hide in a hole and stay there forever. But this film teaches me that not letting things go and obsessing over the past only hurts me in the long run—and can hurt others, too.
Lewis also finds it hard to cope with failure and rejection. Even with how brilliant he clearly is, he fails a lot. In fact, his prototype inventions blow up in his face so often that the other students in his class come prepared with helmets and welding masks just in case. Lewis becomes so frustrated and disheartened by these failures that he nearly gives up inventing altogether… just like how he gets so disheartened by all the rejections and failures to find adoptive parents that he gives up on the process in favor of finding his birth mom.
But Lewis learns through Goob just how dangerous it can be to “let it boil and fester” rather than letting go of those frustrations and learning from the past.
In the final big twist of the film, Bowler-Hat Guy reveals he was Lewis’s orphanage roommate all along. After Lewis’s inventions kept him up all night, Goob found himself spiraling into madness, blaming Lewis when he lost a baseball game due to falling asleep, blaming Lewis for his slathering rants that drove away any potential adoptees, and blaming Lewis for the fact he’d locked himself away in the orphanage long after it had fallen out of use. As he grew up, Goob never learned to “let it go” and move on with his life.
I’ve lived my life haunted by failure: I’m afraid to fail, and when that failure comes (as it does to all of us), I get trapped in my frustration and self-condemnation.
But failure isn’t what I think it is. Failure isn’t losing a baseball game. Failure isn’t an invention blowing up in your face. It’s not a creation turning out different from what you expected. True failure is giving up and allowing your circumstances to define you. It’s believing the lie that you can’t be better than you are now, that you’ll never amount to anything unless you tear down others who seem to have it better than you.
But when things don’t go as planned or when I make a mistake, that’s not real failure at all. And it’s nothing that can’t be overcome with persistence and a good attitude.
Creating anything worthwhile is going to result in mistakes that may, like in Lewis’s case, literally blow up in your face. But the Robinsons’ motto—taken directly from Walt Disney himself—is to not let it keep you stuck in the past, but to “Keep moving forward.” Learn from those mistakes. Keep pushing. Don’t stop. Don’t give up.
Because what does it matter if an invention doesn’t turn out the way you wanted? All you have to do is pick yourself back up and try again. It’s not a big deal. It’s not the end of the world. In fact, the Robinsons consider not succeeding as something just as worthy of celebration as successes.
When Lewis attempts to create (and fix) a peanut butter and jelly-dispensing machine, it explodes, covering the Robinson family in a gooey mess. Lewis buries his head, mortified, apologizing profusely. He’s sure he’s ruined his good relations with the family forever. However, they’re not upset; they’re ecstatic.
“Awesome” they call Lewis’s failure. But how? Well, as Aunt Billie Robinson puts it, “From failing, you learn. From success, not so much.”
With a theme like that, it’s little wonder how this quirky cast of characters has come to mean so much to me. Little wonder why even if I don’t remember moment to moment how the movie goes, I always hear the title and think to myself, “That was such a great film.” Meet the Robinsons is a movie that lasts, a movie that’s taught me that even when the worst happens, as Rob Thomas puts it in the film’s ending theme, I can “let it go; let it roll right off [my] shoulder…” and “know the hardest part is over.”
Need more Disney? Check out my thoughts on Moana here!
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws.
Meet the Robinsons and all related terms are the property of Walt Disney Studios, based on the children’s book A Day with Wilbur Robinson, written by William Joyce. And I am not affiliated with either of them.
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