After my post about Pixar's WALL-E, my friend Josh Altmanshofer suggest I go to 2007's Meet the Robinsons as an example of a Disney-created 3-D animated film that wasn't bad. After a TiVO accident that left me having seen half of it six weeks ago, I've finally finished the movie, and I think Josh is partially right.
The movie is definitely not bad, particularly in its first half hour, although it certainly lacks the spark that makes the best Disney movies (Dumbo, Sleeping Beauty, The Jungle Book, and Beauty and the Beast, if you're asking me) great. But for all its bright and spectacular visions of a rosy future, it feels sinister somehow, as if it's asking us to deny an integral part of our humanity.
Walt Disney was always a forward-thinker, and for the most part his company has kept up that part of his legacy. He was a political conservative (and yes, a union-buster), but he believed in the great liberal value of the forward thrust of mankind. You see this in the restless innovation of Disney animation, starting with the early "Alice" shorts (which mixed live action with animation in a truly disturbing way) and moving through the Technicolor splendor of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia and the early computer effects of the Disney Renaissance into, of course, the company's faith in and annexation of Pixar.
And then there's the theme parks. The second park of the Walt Disney World complex is the EPCOT--or Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow--Center. Disney himself cooked up this idea shortly before his death, and the original plan was not for a straight theme park but for a miniature city of sorts, a place for all-American families to live, work, and play. It was to be a community of innovation and invention, of boundary-pushing not just in the arts but in the sciences. That didn't end up happening, of course, and instead, we got the slab of edutainment with the giant silver golf ball, although the park still focuses on scientific progress.
And of course there's Tomorrowland, one of the most hallowed of all the "countries" in the Disneyland/Walt Disney World theme park family. Tomorrowland is a perfect 1950s vision of the future, with talking garbage cans and pointy silver buildings that house attractions themed to a u/dystopian outer space.
I bring all this up because Meet the Robinsons falls squarely into the Disney tradition of an optimistic and rosy future, one in which mankind has been--if not saved--heavily advanced by technology. The future is a beautiful place in this movie, and in fact it resembles nothing so much as Tomorrowland. That in itself is fine. We may doubt the ability of mankind to achieve such a gorgeous future--particularly in the forty years allotted by the movie for this change to take place--but I suspect most of us, deep down somewhere, want something like it to take place and believe (in the same place we believe in Tinkerbell) that it could happen.
But I must take issue with the message of the movie, one that is outright stated: "Keep moving forward." Maybe even that would be okay except that the movie all but explicitly tells us that the past is something not worth examining. The main character, Lewis, is an orphan who for much of the movie wants nothing more than to find out who his birth-mother is. But when he's given the chance to do so, twenty minutes from the tearful finale, he turns around and walks away. After all, why bother examining where you come from when all that matters is where you're going?
It's a distinctly American idea, an idea that could only come from a Protestant country that was formed by violently breaking ties with a traditional society. And each successive generation of Americans, my own included, shows less and less interest in connecting or even knowing their past. I'm indicting myself here, too, but I think part of the problem is that all culture has become pop culture--and pop culture has a short shelf life. (My students hadn't even seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, an act of heresy to a Disney nerd like me.)
Perhaps I would not be so disturbed by this movie if I hadn't been immersed lately in the Southern Agrarians, a traditionalist move if there ever was one--but I think Donald Davidson has a major point when he says that abandoning of tradition is abandoning of form. (With Davidson's equation in mind, it is difficult not to connect the message of Meet the Robinsons with its medium--could a traditional 2D animated feature make a statement like "Keep moving forward"?) And I'm not against formal or technological innovation, but if abandoning of tradition is abandoning of form, we have to remember that eventually we will innovate ourselves right out of existence--the form and foundation will eventually disappear.
That being said, I think Disney usually has a better grasp on the balance between the past and the future--think of the way the idealized pasts in Adventureland and Frontierland balance the utopian future of Tomorrowland. And remember that the company has reinstituted its 2D animation department and plans to release a movie set in 1920s New Orleans. I just think Meet the Robinsons could have stood to have tweaked its message a bit. Do we really want to live in a world when the future is all that matters and the past is not worth examining?
I do not.