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15 years ago, one Disney sci-fi movie changed time travel forever

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Fifteen years ago, time travel wasn’t the cultural mainstay it is now. Time travel in the movies didn’t look like Tenet, The Adam Project, or Interstellar. It was more like The Lake House, Premonition, or Click, not a science fiction subgenre but a twist to be added to your crime thriller or romantic comedy.

But a Disney movie, of all things, changed this and proved that an entire story could be propelled by time travel, even if it was an animated family adventure. Here’s how.

Meet the Robinsons premiered on March 30, 2007 and faced a daunting challenge at the box office. It was an original script (loosely based on a children’s book called A Day with Wilbur Robinson), had a complex plot that risked being too difficult for kids to understand, and had been through a rough production. Talent changed, art styles changed and, because of Disney’s purchase of Pixar in 2006, leadership changed too. When John Lasseter became head of Disney Animation Studios, 60% of the film ended up reworked.

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When it finally made it to theaters it struggled and now, in the future it so vividly imagined, its effect is almost negligible. So why have we forgotten this movie instead of holding it up as a classic? The answer is the very subject of the film: Time.

Meet the Robinsons follows Lewis, an orphan and prodigy inventor. During a science fair he’s kidnapped by a mysterious boy named Wilbur Robinson. Wilbur takes him into the future, where Wilbur and Lewis explore the dynamics of the wacky Robinson family and defend themselves from the villainous Bowler Hat Guy.

Trying to make a nostalgic family movie is difficult, because children don’t really have a sense of nostalgia. Instead, they’re living the times they’ll later get nostalgic about. Meet the Robinsons solves this issue by making both its “present” and “future” the versions a child would imagine. Lewis’ world is like a Leave it to Beaver 1950s retro-idyll, albeit in an orphanage, and Wilbur’s is like Disney’s Tomorrowland, full of flying cars and funky hairdos.

Then, there’s the movie’s thematic approach. Lewis, like so many Disney characters before him, is an orphan, and his want for a family pulses constantly throughout the film. Inventions are great, but you can’t invent someone who will love you. Through his adventure, Lewis discovers there are people who will love someone weird like him, and that they’re delightfully weird too.

The film’s use of time travel also revolutionized children’s media. It trusted its young audience to understand a non-linear structure and the fact that although they look the same age, Lewis is actually a lot older than Wilbur. Add a soundtrack featuring Rufus Wainwright, Danny Elfman, They Might Be Giants, and The Jonas Brothers with a Kim Wilde cover entitled “Kids of the Future” (look, it was 2007) and all the pieces for a thrilling family adventure were there.

Lewis, Wilbur, and his kooky family. Disney Pictures

So what happened? Well, remember how the purchase of Pixar affected the production? It affected the release too. After Meet the Robinsons, basically all 3D-animated Disney films were done in conjunction with Pixar, so Meet the Robinsons was the last release of its kind. While it saw a future of robotic hats and reanimated dinosaurs, it forgot about the always looming possibility of corporate acquisition.

But in 2022, Meet the Robinsons is nostalgic on a number of levels. The glorious storytelling is timeless, but now there’s an added layer of time gone by; a time when a little book could become a major Disney property, and time travel wasn’t just something dealt with by Marvel and Christopher Nolan.

Thankfully, we live in Wilbur’s future and this movie’s available to stream on Disney+, meaning this early 2000s time capsule is within arm’s reach. Meet the Robinsons is a hidden gem that happened to fall through the cracks of the Disney machine, but there’s no better time to amend this sci-fi blindspot than the present.

Meet the Robinsons is now streaming on Disney+.

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