*Meet the Robinsons (G)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
You could feel the history being written about Disney's in-house computer animation division even before Chicken Little made its way into theaters a couple years ago. Creation of this division was all really just a negotiation tactic, the narrative would read, in the protracted talks with Pixar over continuing a distribution relationship with Disney a combination back-up plan/leverage tool, but never a serious artistic enterprise.
And with Pixar now safely back in the fold for the foreseeable future, the non-Pixar features era would be looked upon as some vaguely embarrassing footnote, like the Coy and Vance episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard.
Pixar continues to be the gold standard for the feature-animation form it pioneered, but it would be a shame if something like Meet the Robinsons was dismissed as the stuff we have to accept while we're waiting for Ratatouille. You have to take the small pleasures you find in cinema, and in Meet the Robinsons, there's pleasure to be found in an unexpected place: the film's ostensible "villain."
Our hero is 12-year-old Lewis, a spiky-haired kid with a penchant for wild inventions. And, in a way, he's about the most generic kind of Disney protagonist an orphan, and an actual living-in-an-orphanage orphan at that. He's so generic that two different young actors Daniel Hansen and Jordan Fry tag-team on the vocal performance with no discernible distinction.
The adventure begins at a school science fair, where Lewis' latest project a gizmo to retrieve memories from your subconscious wreaks unintentional havoc. Young Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman) appears to tell Lewis that a) Wilbur is from the future; b) Lewis' invention was sabotaged; and c) it's all part of a plot by the mysterious Bowler Hat Guy (director Stephen Anderson) to do nothing less than change the course of history.
And there's where the real pleasure for adults may come from in this flick. In terms of character design, Bowler Hat Guy's a delight a blast from the vaudeville past, with his handlebar moustache and cape-shrouded shoulders. Yet his spiral comb-over like the pony-decorated binder in which he keeps his checklist for world domination hints at the pathetic guy beneath his robotic hat.
Quite simply, he's a buffoon, incapable of doing anything right without his sinister headwear running the show. Cartoons have given their bad guys psychological back-story before, but Bowler Hat Guy feels like a new, strangely mature creation someone whose insistence on blaming his fate on external forces makes him an easy target for manipulation.
There's some fairly intense stuff going on once the bowler hat itself is exposed as the real evil brains of the operation, including a vision of a bleak alternate reality that's like a haberdasher's nightmare of The Matrix. Younger kids might get a little creeped out by the gloom, if they're not already jumping out of their skins at the 3-D effects.
But the solid, energetically staged story seems designed mostly for older kids and maybe for their parents, who recall that dark undercurrents have been part of the Disney universe since the witch offered Snow White an apple, and long before Woody and Buzz were a twinkle in Pixar's eye.