THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘Meet the Robinsons’

The one that honoured Walt’s legacy.

At the dawn of the new millennium, the management of Walt Disney Company was in utter chaos and morale amongst the ranks at its animation studio was disastrously low. After a string of box office failures, the days of traditional animation were over and then-CEO Michael Eisner was fumbling his way through Disney’s transition to computer animation, while also mishandling negotiations with then-Pixar CEO Steve Jobs over the future of Disney’s distribution deal of Pixar titles.

In late 2003, Eisner and his board of directors rejected the request of then-chairman of Walt Disney Animation Studios Roy E. Disney for an extension of his term as a member of the board, leading to Disney’s resignation on November 30. After his departure, Disney issued a scathing letter criticising Eisner’s mismanagement of the studio, particularly his neglect of the animation division, the souring of the studio’s relationship with Pixar, and his failure to focus on the languishing attendance at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Disney also reprimanded Eisner’s blunt refusal to establish a clear succession plan and declared the CEO had turned the company into a “rapacious, soul-less conglomerate.”

With his business partner, Stanley Gold, Disney established a second external “Save Disney” campaign similar to the one that had forced fellow Disney family member Ron Miller out in 1984. The pair launched the website with brutal information regarding Eisner’s failures of recent years and a petition to remove him as CEO, which drew thousands of signatures. Disney began rallying support for his campaign amongst shareholders and Disney fans alike, with the calls for Eisner’s removal growing louder by the day.

Meanwhile, in January 2004, talks between Eisner and Jobs broke down, with Jobs in disagreement with Eisner’s insistence Pixar sequels would not be counted against the number of films required in the studio’s new distribution deal. This clause essentially gave Disney free rein to produce sequels to Pixar titles without their involvement or approval. While Jobs began shopping for a new distribution deal with studios including Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox, Eisner established Circle 7 Animation, a division of Disney’s Feature Animation department which would exclusively produce sequels to Pixar films.

As criticism of Eisner intensified in the wake of the collapse of the Pixar negotiations, the company held its annual shareholders’ meeting on March 3, 2004, with 43% of shareholders voting to oppose Eisner’s re-election to the board of directors. While a dejected Eisner would remain as chief executive, George J. Mitchell was elected to replace him as chairman. But the writing was on the wall for Eisner, and, on March 13, 2005, he announced he would resign as CEO on September 30, a full year before his contract was due to expire.

After successfully campaigning for Eisner’s removal, Disney and the Walt Disney Company agreed to put their differences aside and Disney rejoined the board as a non-voting director emeritus and creative consultant on July 8 and shutting down on August 7. The board quickly approved the appointment of then-president of The Walt Disney Company Bob Iger to the position of chairman and CEO. Iger immediately resumed negotiations with Jobs, and, on January 24, 2006, Disney announced it had acquired Pixar for a staggering $7.4 billion and had subsequently shut down Circle 7 Animation.

Upon a review of the entire animation department, Iger commented he had no idea “how broken Disney Animation was.” In dire need of new leadership, Iger instated Pixar co-founder Edwin Catmull and former Disney animator turned Oscar-winning Pixar director John Lasseter as President and Chief Creative Officer, respectively, of both Walt Disney Feature Animation and Pixar. While there were initial discussions with shutting down Disney’s animation department, Catmull and Lasseter were confident they could revitalise the ailing studio and set about rebuilding morale of the Feature Animation team.

Now, you may be asking why this exhaustive backstory has been provided in an article intended to focus on Meet the Robinsons. In the midst of all this chaotic executive change, director Stephen Anderson was attempted to craft a loose adaptation of William Joyce’s children’s book A Day with Wilbur Robinson, which was originally scheduled to be released in 2006. After receiving approval on the production from Eisner in 2004, Anderson and his team had been working on the film for the better part of two years.

While Joyce’s original novel centred on a young boy who meets the unusual Robinson family while attempting to locate Grandfather Robinson’s missing false teeth, Anderson reworked the narrative into a time-travel adventure in which a 12-year old aspiring orphan inventor named Lewis travels to the future in search of a family to call his own. While in the future, Lewis meets titular Robinsons while battling against a nefarious villain called the Bowler Hat Guy. Lewis soon realises he must uncover the seeds of Bowler Hat Guy’s evil plot from the past in order to save the future from certain doom.

The project held significant meaning to Anderson, as the director was an orphan himself and keenly understood Lewis’ yearning for a family to adopt him. When Lasseter took control of the creative direction of Walt Disney Feature Animation in 2006, he requested an early test screening of Meet the Robinsons, which was roughly 85% completed. By all accounts, the test screening did not go well. While Lasseter was impressed by the film’s daring vision of the future and its connection to the legacy of future-obsessed Walt Disney, he felt the villain wasn’t threatening enough, the storyline wasn’t particularly entertaining, and the ending lacked the heart so often found in Pixar’s animated films.

Anderson was terrified Lasseter would cancel the production, but Lasseter instead pushed the release date back one year to allow the director enough time to salvage the project. Over the next ten months, almost 60% of the original film was scrapped, with entire sequences requiring reanimation and the narrative reworked to focus more heavily on the emotional resonance of Lewis’ character arc. Anderson paid closed attention to Lasseter’s advice regarding Bowler Hat Guy, with the villain reimagined as a homage to both Wacky Races villain Dick Dastardly and the arch enemy of Dudley Do-Right, Snidely Whiplash.

For the film’s visual aesthetic, Anderson and his production team sought to echo the retro style of the illustrations in Joyce’s book, which were influenced by architectural designs and films of the 1940s. Joyce served as an executive producer on the project and worked closely with the design team throughout the production. Art director Robh Ruppel crafted juxtaposing designs for the past, present, and future to boldly differentiate the three time periods. Scenes which took place in Lewis’ past were presented in almost sepia tone fashion, while the present featured warm, inviting tones, and the future was an array of bright blues and yellows.

Anderson heavily featured the quote “Keep moving forward” throughout the film as both the mantra of future inventor Cornelius Robinson and an important lesson Lewis must learn in order to relinquish himself of his past and embrace his future. This ultimately stood as a tribute to Walt Disney himself, with the quote taken from the longer passage, “Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” Anderson would not reveal the origin of the quote until the final frame of Meet the Robinsons.

Meet the Robinsons opened on March 23, 2007, to mostly mixed reviews from critics. While Variety called the film “a sharp-minded, plenty entertaining toon that will keep children of all ages wide-eyed and on their toes,” and USA Today praised the film as “inventive and fun with a significant message that manages not to be overbearing,” The New York Times declared the film “one of the worst theatrically released animated features issued under the Disney label in quite some time,” and The Hollywood Reporter deemed it to be “a cartoon that is busy and frenetic yet has little actually going on.”

The reaction from the general public was equally muted, with Meet the Robinsons grossing a disappointing $25 million in its U.S. opening weekend, with a final domestic total of $97 million by the end of its theatrical run. The film elicited a further $71 million internationally for a mediocre total gross of $169 million worldwide. With a production budget of $150 million and a further $50 million spent on advertising, the film was written off as a minor financial loss for the studio.

Much like the other examples of Disney’s early experiments with computer animation, Meet the Robinsons has failed to endure the test of time. It’s a film in Disney’s animated canon that’s all but faded from memory in the 13 years since its initial release, which is a mighty shame because it’s a surprisingly sweet little gem of a film. Sure, the awkward animation style is garishly amateur by comparison with Disney’s later computer-animated work, but the narrative is refreshingly deep and terribly endearing and the film is filled with a cast of quirky and charming characters.

Perhaps the film’s abundance of heart is a result of Anderson’s personal connection to the film, with the director clearly infusing his experiences as an orphan into the narrative to perfectly capture the complex emotional journey of a boy in search of a family. The heart of this film is wrapped up in a whole cavalcade of absurdity including singing frogs, a self-aware robotic bowler hat, and a tyrannosaurus rex who acts like a playful puppy. But when you sweep away all the silliness intended to keep your children entertained, Meet the Robinsons is a film of significant depth.

The plight of an orphan was nothing new for Disney, but Meet the Robinsons offered a fresh perspective on a young orphan’s quest for his identity and the complicated process of accepting the pain of the past and pushing towards a brighter future. The film is littered with plot holes, particularly surrounding its time-travel plot, which often makes very little sense. But Anderson clearly took Lasseter’s advice to rework the ending, with the film’s conclusion standing as one of the most unexpectedly emotional resolutions Disney animation has ever offered.

With numerous playful nods to Walt Disney’s bold vision of the future (how can you not chuckle at seeing Disneyland’s Space Mountain building in an area called Todayland?), you’d have to imagine Meet the Robinsons would be the kind of film Walt would have adored, especially knowing his very words were the driving force behind the plot. It’s a beautiful moment to see his quote appear on-screen and inform an audience they’ve essentially just witnessed a 94-minute tribute to the man who started it all.

Is Meet the Robinsons a Disney Classic? While it may not be a groundbreaking piece of cinema, nor would anyone call it a Disney Classic, Meet the Robinsons deserves more love than it receives. It’s abundantly clear Disney was still stumbling its way through computer animation, but this film was a huge step in the right direction.

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