First Theatrical Release: March 30, 2007
First Home Viewing Release: October 23, 2007
My Rating: 3/5 stars
Where I Found It: My library’s DVD collection
Bechdel Test Score: Failed. This is really a pity, since this movie has a lot of women on its cast list: Lewis’s birth mother, Mildred, Lucille, Franny, Doris, Aunt Petunia, Aunt Billie, and Lizzy. Unfortunately, most of the women are mere background noise (literally) and none of them have direct conversations with each other. The only ones who get much character development at all are Franny and Lucille, both “mom” roles who are only important because of their relationship to Lewis.
This is another movie I had not yet seen before this project. Its opening scenes really charmed me — I could see myself getting attached to the geeky, hopeful Lewis and his roommate Goob, whose opening monologue about baseball and Halloween costumes sounds the most like a real kid’s ramblings of anything I’ve ever seen in Disney. Unfortunately, this movie that is at times both warm and truly funny falters in some ways that really matter, and not just in its unfortunate failure of the Bechdel Test.
Meet the Robinson’s: Baby’s First Time Travel Movie
I read A Day With Wilbur Robinson before seeing this movie, and even though I perhaps shouldn’t have such high expectations of picture books, I was disappointed that Grandpa’s missing teeth was its closest approximation of a plot. The rest is just a lot of interesting things happening, a walkthrough with the quirky Robinson family, with no real growth or change for our protagonist — and no explanation of who the Robinsons are or why they are so unusual. Yeah, so maybe a four-year-old wouldn’t care, but this 34-year-old did.
So I was pleased by the way that Disney’s rendition both stayed true to the picture book (it basically runs through all 32 pages of it in Lewis’s first encounter with the family, and the characters bear a remarkable resemblance to their picture-book counterparts) AND infused it with plot and character development. All around, an improvement. Still, in many ways the book’s “picture-book” roots remain — there is an over-the-top zaniness to the Robinson family that is pure kid wish-fulfillment — the sort of thing that will make the eyes of anyone under the age of 10 go wide, and the eyes of anyone over that age roll a bit with a jaded thought of, “Yeah, right.”
But there’s nothing wrong with movies that allow kids to see onscreen the sorts of things they lie in bed fantasizing about. What’s strange about this movie is that it also involves time travel, which, because it requires abstract reasoning, is less likely to “make sense” to younger viewers. I spent a lot of the movie distractedly trying to remember my first exposure to time travel. I think I was fairly young and was able to follow the concept, but only if presented with an absence of paradoxes. I STILL have trouble with the paradoxes! [In THIS movie I had trouble believing technology would advance THAT MUCH in like, what, 30 years? But that probably wouldn’t bother kids.]
So because Meet the Robinsons is basically “time-travel lite” with only the most oblique references to paradoxes (i.e., the idea that Wilbur would never be born if he screwed something up with Lewis), I think its intended demographic would mostly be able to follow it. But when it comes to considering the character of Goob, that might not be totally beneficial.
The Problem with Goob
I felt distinctly uncomfortable with “the bowler man” the moment he appeared on the scene. He treads that uncomfortable line between truly scary and totally pathetic, and odd bits of comic relief such as his possession of a unicorn binder and his emotional dependence on his hat struck me more as sad than funny. I figured out who he was “in the past” fairly early on in the film, and that’s when I started to feel even more squeamish. Because he was somewhat redeemed by movie’s end, for a while I was baffled by my own discomfort and wasn’t sure I’d be able to articulate it enough to manage this blog post.
But I think I’ve got a handle on it now, and it goes back to my first reaction to Goob. Because <SPOILER ALERT> Lewis’s roommate Goob grows up to be “the bowler man,” the movie’s primary villain.
So, let’s back up here. This is what we know about Goob before he goes villain:
- He has trouble sleeping at night because Lewis is always working on his inventions in their room;
- He dreams of being a star baseball player;
- He gets beat up at school when he misses a catch playing outfield and his team loses;
- He’s small for his age; and
- He talks like a real kid.
As charming as Lewis is, Goob is the one who feels real to me — I want to pick him up and take him home and make a sandwich while he tells me about his horrible day. But then he grows up to be a horrible person because he blames Lewis for the fact that he fell asleep on the outfield and missed the winning catch. So his goal becomes to ruin Lewis’s life — but he lacks the confidence to really execute this plan, so he depends on Lewis’s “helping hat,” an invention gone horribly wrong, instead.
The movie does allow him to be redeemed. Lewis goes back in time and wakes him up so he makes that fateful catch and presumably goes on to live a life of greater confidence. The movie does not seem intent on “punishing” him, and I think it’s admirable when movies show how a villain became villainous — no one is the villain of his own story. I also liked the subtle message that even “good” people can bring evil into the world, as with Lewis’s invention of the “helping hat.” Still, in a lot of stories where we get villain backstory, we see the villain FIRST. We respond to the villain FIRST. And then we learn what makes them that way, and we maybe have a bit more sympathy or appreciation for their character.
In this movie, we see a downtrodden orphan boy first, and we get attached to him. We hope he eventually hits is stride. But he doesn’t. He grows up to be creepy and evil and an object of perpetual scorn, from the Robinsons to the various “henchmen” he employs.
What message is this sending to all the real-life little Goobs out there? Kids who don’t quite fit in, who get beat up at school, who carry unicorn folders, who get forgotten and overlooked?
Not one that I can get behind, that’s for sure.
Interestingly, I read on Wikipedia that the release of Meet the Robinsons was delayed by a year because of a change in leadership with the Disney/Pixar merger, and the main criticism the new creative director had was that the villain wasn’t “scary” enough.
I can’t help but wonder if that’s where this movie that could have been so full of warmth and wonder went so terribly wrong.