Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Robinsons Help Disney to 'Keep Moving Forward'

“We didn’t want to appear to be setting up a Disney department that ‘did what Pixar does,’ primarily because we wouldn’t want to spend a lot of effort on anything so impossible…John Lasseter and his crew are simply geniuses, and so unparalleled at what they do that trying to ape them would have been an exercise in foolishness.”

Thomas Schumacher
Former President, Walt Disney Feature Animation

The quote I chose to open with comes from Dinosaur: The Evolution of an Animated Feature, the companion ‘making-of’ book to the ambitious 2000 film, Dinosaur. Ironically, by 2004, Disney would become the antithesis of this statement. Thanks to then-CEO Michael Eisner, traditional (2-D) animation was deemed obsolete and abandoned after eighty-one years as the studio’s medium of choice. Instead, Disney would begin exclusively producing CG feature-length films.

Three years later this decision has been reversed as a result of the 2006 Disney/Pixar merger. Animation President Dr. Edwin Catmull and Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter, both from Pixar, are bringing back traditional animation to Disney with 2009’s The Frog Princess. CG and traditional animation will co-exist at Disney. More immediate changes have included a studio name change (from the more corporate-sounding Walt Disney Feature Animation to Walt Disney Animation Studios) and a greater emphasis on story/director-driven filmmaking.

The studio name change and story emphasis are already evident in Disney’s latest release Meet The Robinsons. Were it not for the novelty of seeing the film in 3D though, I probably would have avoided it altogether. My initial aversion toward the film was due to the film’s trailer – it remained unchanged (Dog wearing glasses, the caffeine patch and T-Rex jokes) for at least six months leading up to the release.

Poor marketing aside, Meet The Robinsons is a decent film.

From the beginning you realize that this is a different breed of Disney animated film. The obligatory ‘pathos’ moment arrives at an unconventional point – right at the beginning when Lewis, the film’s hero, is left by his mother on the steps of an orphanage as an infant (this may be where Pixar’s influence enters the realm of Disney: Finding Nemo began with Nemo’s mother being consumed by a barracuda). As far as emotional impact, it’s almost reminiscent of the scene in The Rescuers where Rufus attempts to cheer-up a tearful Penny following her unsuccessful experience on ‘adoption day.’

Meet The Robinsons features a supporting cast comprised of some of the most eccentric characters (Uncle Fritz and his controlling hand-puppet wife Petunia) ever to appear in a Disney film. With such an extensive set of secondary characters, it's amazing how well developed they are. Many could have easily gotten lost but everything connects nicely by the film’s end.

The film looks great in 3D, but as is the case with anything shown in this medium, it’s really only effective when something comes flying at the ‘camera.’ In addition, a classic short subject Donald Duck cartoon, Working For Peanuts (1953) is shown before the film, also in 3D (On-screen trivia beforehand proclaims it as ‘the first stereoscopic 3D film made by Walt Disney’).

Danny Elfman’s score is a brilliant homage to 1950’s science fiction/B-horror film music, making good use of the instruments associated with that sound (organ, bongo drums and Theramin). For scenes like “To the future” and the song he wrote for the closing credits (The Future Has Arrived), the music is reminiscent of that of his band Oingo Boingo and '70's/'80's rock group, Electric Light Orchestra.

I opened with a quote, so I might as well close with one. A declaration (of sorts) of a new era at Disney is presented prior to the closing credits of Meet The Robinsons:

“Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

Walt Disney

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