Meet the Robinsons

Rare is the animated Disney film that doesn’t feature “Just be yourself” as a central lesson, but “Meet the Robinsons” adds a new one: “Be glad when you fail, because that’s how you learn.”

I love that motto. It’s much better than “Just be yourself,” the subtext of which is usually “… and you’ll always succeed.” In fact, “Meet the Robinsons” tries and fails a few times, too, before getting on track and delivering an hour of comedy that ranges from the slapstick to the surreal, accompanied by some good ol’ Disney sweetness.

Alive with sunny colors (and showing in some theaters in 3-D!), the film tells of 12-year-old Lewis (voice of Daniel Hansen and Jordan Fry), a family-less boy who lives at an orphanage run by the kindly Mildred (Angela Bassett). Lewis wants to be adopted more than anything, but his obsession with science and his imaginative inventions make him a little … intense. He scares off one potential couple when his peanut-butter-and-jelly-dispensing device malfunctions and sends the husband into anaphylactic shock. You can bet Annie never had that problem.

Lewis next sets his efforts on inventing a memory-scanning machine, hoping that he can find in his brain an image of his mother from before she left him on the orphanage steps when he was days old. If he knows what she looks like, maybe he can find her! He works day and night on the project, much to the dismay and sleep-deprivation of his dorky little roommate, Goob (Matthew Josten).

At the science fair where he will unveil his invention, Lewis is waylaid by a 13-year-old boy named Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman), who is from the future and who warns Lewis about the Bowler Hat Guy (Stephen J. Anderson, also the film’s director). The Bowler Hat Guy is also from the future and wants to thwart Lewis’ plans for undisclosed reasons.

Soon enough, Lewis and Wilbur are at the Robinson mansion in The Future, repairing the time machine and meeting Wilbur’s bizarre collection of relatives. Mom teaches frogs to sing. A couple of uncles hide in the plants outside the front door, each urging visitors to ring his doorbell and not his brother’s. Another uncle is a giant fat man in a reclining chair; all we are told about him is, “He works out.”

What’s most entertaining about this sequence is how fast-paced and loopy it is. I thought of several things during it: “Alice in Wonderland,” the surreal “Porky in Wackyland” Warner Bros. cartoon, and the nightmarish story in the “Twilight Zone” movie about the omnipotent boy and his hostages/family members (the movie was scarier than the original TV episode). “Meet the Robinsons” is all comedy, no terror, but it’s just as bizarre and random as the works cited.

Prior to that, in the scenes set in the present, the film is somewhat disappointing. Many of the jokes are broad and simple, exaggerated even by cartoon standards and strained to the point of tedium. (The Bowler Hat Guy’s ill-fated attempt to impress bigwigs in a corporate boardroom is the worst offender.) Zipping into the future brings the story to life, though, and it’s smooth sailing from then on.

The eventual standout is, in fact, the Bowler Hat Guy. His bowler hat is sentient, named Doris, and can run errands for him. In fact, Doris might even have a mind of her own. (I don’t think I’m imagining the “2001: A Space Odyssey” reference that I saw.) BHG himself looks like the old Snidely Whiplash style of villains, complete with twirlable mustache and sinister grin. He is, however, gloriously incompetent, and hilariously so. His minions’ frequent reminders to him that his plans have not been thought out very well cracked me up every time.

William Joyce’s very simple book “A Day with the Wilbur Robinson” has been adapted and expanded by no fewer than seven screenwriters, but the many cooks have not spoiled the broth too badly. In fact, there are clever time-travel paradoxes and other pleasant surprises in the last act, and the film has a generally merry disposition that, coupled with its solid laughs, should make it enjoyable for all ages.

B (1 hr., 36 min.; G, nothing offensive.)