High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Iceberg + Tip: Meet the Robinsons

A few years ago, M and I were driving around downtown Chicago with the lovely A, who was on her way to O'Hare and thence to England later that day. We were trying to get to a movie, but weren't able to see it at the theater we'd planned on for a variety of reasons, including a bunch of suburban asshats getting in my way in my city. I got us out of the Loop by a superseekrit route that evaded most of the nonsense, and A commented that Chicago really is my city, whereas she'd really ceded it to her ex when she left for grad school.

Of course I'd never give up Chicago to anyone under any circumstances, but I'm sure it's coincidental that, so far as I know there is only one individual whom I've ever dated who isn't well on the other side of the county line. But it's probably worth warning those who would interact with me that, for a non-only, non-oldest child, I'm a grabby thing. As I prefer to put things in a poetic light more flattering to me, I quote Neko Case: Don't you try and stop me/ I cling tightly/ to this life.

I first became aware of William Joyce when a then-friend gave me Dinosaur Bob and his Adventures with the Family Lazardo for Christmas. I really loved the book and it immediately became something that almost everyone I knew needed, particularly when my nieces and nephews started coming along. My siblings were not immediately wild about it, but to a tot, the kids love it. It's probably more than a coincidence that, according to the author blurb at the back of A Day with Wilbur Robinson, Joyce "backed into" children's literature after he'd tried making a living at "grown-up" art and found that neither galleries nor patrons had any interest in the paintings of baseball-playing dinosaurs that absolutely thrilled him. If you're reading this because you read my ramblings with any regularity, you probably need a copy and so do all the children, big and small, in your life.

Its pages are filled with long paragraphs of text in a beautiful font. The artwork is sort of impressionist with a strong deco aesthetic. The story is deeply weird, and the whole package is somewhat challenging. I could write an entry in itself about how it's a metaphor for the gift giver (and I suppose he'd probably say the same about me, except without the more flattering parts), but I won't. Suffice to say, he had to go, eventually, and I held on to Joyce.

I don't think I've done the 3-D thing since Son of Svengoolie broadcast Revenge of the Creature and all of Chicagoland got its superfly Red-Green 3-D glasses from 7-11. (Oh, wait, I must've done that 3-D thing at Epcot a few years after that.) These early exposures were not overly impressive to a geeky youngster who wanted to be caught up in things. My brain has a nasty habit of insisting on what is really there, rather than what I can actually see, and this seemed to undergo some perverse reversal when the 2-D television tried to show me things in 3-D. So much for 60 million years of evolution of stereoscopic vision.

But those 3-D experiences are of the past. The Elvis Costello 3-D glasses are yours to keep, and the 3-D is wicked. They ran a cartoon in front of the movie that Walt Disney had done in 3-D back in the 60s. It was just a silly little Chip & Dale + Donald Duck and a ridiculously cute elephant, but it was strangely affecting to know that a little piece of art had been sitting quietly for almost 50 years for the technology allowing it to be seen as originally intended.

The only adaptation of Joyce I'd seen before last night was George Shrinks, courtesy of PBS, Wire Monkey Mother, and Lillith. It doesn't quite capture the beauty of the artwork, but the writers and performers admirably capture the quirk. I think I might say the reverse about Disney's success with Meet the Robinsons.

The art is just heart stopping, not for its realism, although there is skin and contact and surface and texture like I've never seen it before, not even in The Incredibles (although I bet the hair team was deeply grateful that Joyce's stylized people meant that no one had to regret to inform anyone that "The Hair? [Was still theoretical]."), and not for its naturalism, although there is wind and rain and the kind of sunshine I can get behind. It stops the heart so that it can pause for an instant before rushing to hug the art for getting it. It's not Joyce. It's not an imitation of Joyce. It's a wonderful marriage between the artist's vision and digital possibility. It was like having technology take me by the hand so we could rush around together and find 15 gorgeous things about the art I'd never had the ability to notice before. I think it's beautiful enough on its own for newcomers, but for the initiated, it's transcendent to have so much revealed in depictions of old, well-loved friends (and how much did I love Dinosaur Bob, the Leaf Men, and others in their cameos?). I truly, sincerely hope that Joyce is happy with the outcome, at least so far as that goes.

On the narrative front, Joyce always presents some challenges. Like that other Joyce I know, William is all about the incident, the accident, the anecdote, the moment. The plot, not so much. True to the title, the story book is simply about a day the unnamed, first-person narrator spends at Wilbur's house, soaking in the Robinsonianism.

On screen, Disney seems eager to be among the first and to comply enthusiastically with the new mandate that all children's movies must feature at least one orphan (the movie has an -age full of 'em). Since the first-person narrator drew the short straw on that front, he needs a name and a story expansion. Rather than simply being WIlbur's best friend, he becomes Lewis orphan, inventor, boy genius, and destroyer of worlds.

Although the movie implies that he's worried along for nearly 13 years, inventing crazy things and choking during interviews, Lewis suddenly becomes obsessed with remembering his mother and tracking her down. Naturally, he invents a Tok'ra memory recall device and nose-hair trimmer that is sabotaged at the science fair by Count Olaf I mean Bowler Hat Guy. There's a not-very-sophisticated lesson in causality from Mr. I'm My Own Grandpa (yeah, I know 5p01l3rz! But it's a kids movie and therefore who's who and who's zoomin' who in the future are all pretty obvious).

The beginning of the movie is pretty slow, and then the pace accelerates immediately to frantic when Lewis makes it to WIlbur's house. Most of the text of the book is present in some form in this rather frenetic section of the movie and it feels like a big rush to show us how weird everything is and yet how Lewis ultimately feels at home. It's all a little to forced and eager and in a rush to assure us that this is all a good thing. As with the books, I think you just have to trust that the kids will get it, and the right kind of adults will get it, and there's no need for such carefully guided tour.

Another particularly odd note in the story is the fact, established very early on, that Wilbur's father, Cornelius (I won't tell you who he looks like!) has a motto: Keep moving forward. This is punched a number of times throughout the movie, to the point that it went past artificial and moved into feeling as though it was meant to be . . . participatory? Like we, the audience, were supposed to metaphorically moving forward while literally staying in our seats and watching the movie, resulting in some kind of mental version of The Hustle. But then the movie ends with the following text on the screen:
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

The full quotation lingers a moment, then all the text except the motto is faded out. I don't know why, but it was touching enough that I retroactively forgave some of the earlier heavy handedness.

The story overall, although no masterwork of fiction, is more disappointing in that it is based on a masterwork of fiction (albeit short, child-targeted fiction), rather than being disappointing in and of itself. It's predictable, yes, but there are a few fun twists. Its resolution is rushed and not particularly convincing, but it's not like we have to have everyone convincingly dead on the floor in time for the arrival of Fortinbras or anything. And in defense of its relationship to the source material, there are some new characters added that are very much in the spirit of Joyce. One word of warning for the parents among you, though, there are a few parts that get dark and scary. They aren't extended, but their intensity kind of comes out of nowhere, so it might be a trick to get some of the more easily scared munchkins through them.

I rather like the fact that the voice cast list does not seem to be ripped from the pages of People Magazine's "50 Most Beautiful" lists. There were only two voices that I recognized straight away (Laurie Metcalf and I won't say who else) and I third I knew I knew but had to look up at home . Many others I've likely heard before, given the amount of animation we consume around these parts. Wesley Singerman was outstanding as WIlbur, a tough role to pull off for such a youngster. I'd also tip my hat to Matthew Josten, the young Goob (that's the character name, not a value judgement), who made that Other Joyceian stream-of-consciousness dialogue his BITCH.

I'm a little confused as to the dual listing for Lewis (Daniel Hansen and Jordan Fry of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; and no it's not a child/adult thing, trust me). Either/both did a fine job, but Lewis is just not so interesting a character. The rest of the cast also focused squarely on being their characters, not on being recognizable as themselves. I've thoroughly enjoyed most of the movies in which the all-star voice cast is kind of the point, but this was a nice alternative and felt right for the material.

So it's not the most earth-shaking movie (or even children's movie) of the year, but it's awfully pretty and far from terrible to watch. But ya gotta see it in 3-D. Superfly glasses, baybee.

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