Meet the Robinsons is an obscure film by Disney standards, but it’s one I’ve made a habit of rewatching because of my personal connection to its narrative. The last time I saw it was a few months ago, on the first Friday of February. I remember it clearly because screenwriter Daniel Gerson passed away the following day.
Gerson has been credited for the story-writing process in several Disney films, including Meet the Robinsons and another film I thoroughly adore, Big Hero 6. (He made a voice cameo as the officer Hiro speaks to following the first Microbots encounter.) The loss of Daniel Gerson put me in a state of reflection, as the narratives of these two films speak to a part of me that has otherwise gone silenced.
Lewis’s as-yet-unrealized potential as an inventor is constantly being challenged: he meets with resistance for using his mind in unconventional ways. The first major catalyst in his character development comes due to his enthusiasm over an untested contraption that, in the end, results in a failed adoption interview — his 124th. Prior to the eruption, though, the role of these prospective parents (as seen when they ask about his favourite sport) is to establish that Lewis is on a different creative plane: he has his own way of seeing the world and finding his place in it.
It’s a mark of good storytelling that despite the fact that I am not an orphan like protagonist Lewis, I still feel connected to Meet the Robinsons.
I’d describe the younger me in similar terms: an oddball, a curious thinker, into things others don’t normally find fascinating — like words. It’s often been the case that my eagerness for such subjects has turned people off. Like Lewis, I know what it is like to have ideas that feel like messages into the ether. I’m cognizant that the merit of certain ideas is colored by the context (and medium) in which they’re applied. And it’s been customary for me to have blips that need further spark, yet struggle to translate on paper what I see inside my head.
That need for direction — or a “brain printer,” to imitate Lewis’s invention — has left me frustrated by my inability to fully see my ideas through. Lewis has visions of changing the world, but those visions originate from a place of imagination and personal situation rather than a desire to serve, a style of self-expression that calls for a self-motivated disposition.
Still, when faced with stifling influences, he needed a reason to persist. The Robinson family provided that reason: an environment where the response to failure wasn’t lambasting, but instead, encouragement for applied learning; and where competence was defined by a process, not the success or failure of a single action.
Living in the process has become something of a motto for me as well, for taking an unrestrained approach to brainstorming as a way of easing me into later phases.
For Lewis’s imaginative solutions — and for Lewis himself — to be accepted where previously he’d found dismissal, it brought him a new awareness. What he really needed was for someone to believe in him so that he could, in turn, believe in himself.
This underlying message comes with an overlapping realization: it’s too late to direct my younger self the way Lewis is directed by the Robinsons, or to teach myself everything I would have benefited from knowing. For that reason, the film’s resolution is difficult to watch, as it forces me to mourn his — my — death.
A similar confrontation of self occurred when I watched Big Hero 6 for the first time. It’s a superhero film where suppressed revenge motivations masquerade as displaced Frankenstein-like hopes of seeing a creation excel. But it’s also a story about achievement through failure and breaking imposed boxes. The film’s climactic scenes are not what impact me most; it’s the build-up and expositional scenes that shape Hiro’s character path.
In the “nerd lab,” everyone seems to have a place. Yet there isn’t a strict enforcement of roles, which allows the students to freely pursue projects that feed into their personal interests. For Tadashi, this was medical science, and he slaved away on a project he truly believed in. The same can be said of his companions with their respective fields of study. Witnessing such a welcoming environment in action, Tadashi’s younger brother, Hiro, formed a clear picture in his mind of where he could fit, and he was thus inspired to dream and work at this dream with persistence.
In some ways, I envy Hiro. With my peculiar fascinations and love for process, my younger self struggled with not knowing where I fit, and my pattern of siding with error over trial only exacerbated my discomfort. It’s a burden to recognize where your strengths lie but not know how to apply yourself in a way that fits a set mold. Hiro was able to find a way to direct his creative energies — through bot fighting. But from the mature outside perspective offered by Tadashi, this path wasn’t getting him to where he should be. That is, until his brother gave him the direction he didn’t know he needed, and the picture of his future started to come together.
Serving as the backdrop for these early scenes is my favorite highlight from the musical score, “Nerd School.” The stringed arrangement concedes to softer tones with chimes and the like as Hiro makes his way inside the lab and individual character themes are introduced. When the song resurfaces with montages of Hiro applying himself feverishly from concept to execution, there’s a forceful peak that perfectly conveys how that initial spark translates to action full of unbounded promise. It’s a wonderful composition and a big reason why I’m moved by these early scenes.
Similar to Lewis in Meet the Robinsons, these prospects are shattered not long after they are revealed, but again, it’s this spark that sets Hiro on a course of his choosing. Although there are setbacks, Hiro is successful in letting his aspirations propel him forward. He doesn’t get there without help, though — Baymax clings to him with physical embraces, like a good friend saying they’ll be there should you fall. Moreover, Hiro essentially creates his own environment where his ideas can thrive, particularly when he tells his newfound friends they can be so much more than what they believe themselves to be.
Both Meet the Robinsons and Big Hero 6 speak to the young inventor in me, who died along with his confused web of misdirected ideas. They are evocative stories that prompt personal reflection, reminding me that whatever echoes of imagination have escaped burial can still live on. And it’s through these and other artful stories that Daniel Gerson’s own voice will continue speaking.