THE CAST MEETS THE ROBINSONS: CRAFTING THE CHARACTERS
The heart of MEET THE ROBINSONS is the orphan boy who is whisked from a world in which he has just about given up hope to a world where anything and everything is not only possible, but expected to happen! This is 12 year-old Lewis, the film's time-traveling young hero, who Steve Anderson describes as "someone who thinks differently than the rest of the world."
Lewis' main goal in life is to find his family, which is why he invents the Memory Scanner, a remarkable machine that allows a person to see into the past - although Lewis will later realize he needs to switch directions and head towards the future to resolve his quest. The director explains: "Lewis wants to make a better world through inventions, but his inventions are a little bit odd, and it's not what families who come to the orphanage are looking for. Lewis' hopes of ever finding a family, or his real mother, are just about dashed until he meets Wilbur Robinson, who restores his hope in the future by bringing him into it!"
As outcast as Lewis might feel at the outset of his story, he might ultimately be one of the least eccentric characters in MEET THE ROBINSONS - because he is about to be surrounded by a group of people who definitely who put the "free" in free spirited. To bring the film's remarkably diverse characters to life, the filmmakers recruited a group of actors from all walks of life - ranging from Oscar® nominees to behind-the-scenes animators who are rarely heard on screen. Comments Steve Anderson: "I'm so excited about the cast that we have. We have people from all kinds of backgrounds, who are experienced in comedy, in television, in theatre, in cartoons and especially improv and because of that, they were able to create characters in a truly bigger-than-life sense. They have taken these wonderful characters even beyond what we imagined."
The cast includes Academy Award® nominee Angela Bassett, who portrays Mildred, the sweet and patient caretaker at the 6th Street Orphanage that has always been home to Lewis, ever since Mildred first found him on her doorstep as an infant. Bassett loved the story's comic-tinged take on the wonders of family. "I really appreciated this story about a little boy who's looking for a family and about how there's many ways to make family," she says. "As a new mom, I found it especially appealing." Bassett got to exercise all her maternal instincts as Mildred. "Mildred's ambition, her dream, her occupation and her greatest commitment is to finding each and every one of her orphanage kids a loving family, one who will see them for who they are and love and appreciate their own special uniqueness," the actress explains. In the case of Lewis, however, that search has hit a dead-end, much to Mildred's chagrin. After all, Mildred loves all her kids, but she has a special place in her heart for Lewis. "She understands how different Lewis is, how he marches to beat of his own drummer," says Bassett. "I think she sees a little Albert Einstein in the making." As much as Bassett enjoyed creating Mildred's voice, one of the biggest thrills for her was seeing the character come to life in all her animated glory. "She has a fantastic look, so endearing and cute. With her little eyeglasses and hairdo, I loved it. To me it's amazing what the animators have come up with on this film," she sums up.
Another major star who lends his voice to MEET THE ROBINSONS is Golden Globe® and Emmy® Award winner Tom Selleck, whose tough-guy charisma was a perfect match for the vast optimism and fearless genius of Cornelius Robinson, the accomplished inventor and beloved head of Robinson Enterprises, which turns out world-altering gadgets by the score.
"He might be animated but Cornelius Robinson is just a great character - a brilliant, optimistic family man who has proved that just about anything is possible if you put your mind to it," says Selleck. "I admire that he's someone who knows what counts and believes wholeheartedly in his family, no matter how unusual they are. It was a very fun challenge for me as an actor to imagine being in his world."
Says Steve Anderson of the casting: "Tom is just incredible as the founder of our future."
Also joining in on the fun is popular comedian, trained animator and children's book author Harland Williams who has been seen in numerous hit film comedies of the last decade and is also known for playing the beloved character of Lug in the animated feature hit "Robots." Williams plays one of the Robinsons' most complicated - and not just mechanically complicated - family members: the household robot Carl. "Carl is this zany robot, who is kind of insecure, yet also over-confident at the same time. He creates a lot of drama and excitement in everybody's life," Williams explains. "He's not human, so that makes him a bit of an outsider but he also has a real bond with Wilbur."
Williams had tons of fun figuring out how to portray Carl. "For my voice, I was inspired by the idea that Carl is always excited and ready to go. He doesn't drink coffee, but he's been dipping into the high-grade oil, man, and that makes him a little hyper!"
Speaking of hyper, more of the film's hilarious hijinx come from Dr. Lucille Krunklehorn, an inventor whose latest gizmo is a caffeine patch that gives her the jolt of twelve cups of coffee. Needless to say, she hasn't slept in days! Playing Dr. Krunklehorn is multiple Emmy® Award winner and Golden Globe® nominee Laurie Metcalf, who has recently been seen in a recurring role on the popular TV hit "Desperate Housewives" and whose animated work includes playing Andy's mom in the classic "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2."
Metcalf was drawn to MEET THE ROBINSONS after she fell in love with the family. "One of the things I loved about the script is the idea of a family that celebrates failure," she comments. "The whole family rallies around anyone who fails at something and even welcomes it - because they realize that without failure you can never have success. I also loved how they each express who they are in their own unique way and every single one is so different. I wanted to get to know this family for real because they are so welcoming and wonderful."
Like many of the cast members, Metcalf was astonished to see Dr. Krunklehorn in her full animated incarnation. "I was just ecstatic because I couldn't take my eyes off her," she says. "I love her facial expressions and I thought she was an amazing actor thanks to the work of the animators."
Meanwhile, the literally whiz-bang role of intergalactic pizza man Uncle Art went to Adam West, the veteran star of screen and television best known for his long-running role as television's Bruce Wayne/Batman. West was knocked out by the screenplay's humor. "I thought it was so witty and a wonderful family story," he says. "The Robinsons are quirky but they also have a lot of the qualities and characteristics of real families." As for playing a man who promises to deliver a pie anywhere in the galaxy in a half an hour, West says: "These characters are so inventive and interesting, they're going to be loved by a lot of people."
Ethan Sandler, a writer and actor renowned for his incredible versatility with voices -- most recently seen starring as ADA Jeffrey Brandau on "Crossing Jordan" - takes on a whopping eight characters in MEET THE ROBINSONS, including the evil bowler hat Doris who hatches a secret plot against Lewis, as well as Uncle Fritz, Aunt Petunia, Cousin Laszlo, Uncle Dmitri, Uncle Spike and The CEO. In coming up with an outrageous range of strange sounds, surprising noises and magnificent manners of speech, Sandler developed his own method of figuring out whether each of his different voices was working: "With each different voice, I would just try to make Steve Anderson laugh - if he was laughing, then I knew I should just keep doing that!" he remarks.
Sandler adds: "I look at the Robinsons as sort of a big jazz band so it was a matter of trying to figure out what instrument each person should play. It was pretty much trial-and-error until everyone was in hysterics. The drawings of the characters made me want to raise the bar even higher, and match those incredibly funny faces."
As for his depiction of the film's true villain - diabolical Doris, the "hench hat" that sits on the otherwise bumbling Bowler Hat Guy's head - Sandler says: "Doris's voice is pretty much as many squeaks and sounds as I could come up with in one combination!"
To play Wilbur Robinson, the kid from the future who changes Lewis' life forever, the filmmakers cast teenaged Wesley Singerman, who has previously voiced the iconic Charlie Brown for several television productions. Singerman could not resist having the chance to meet the Robinsons once he read the screenplay. "Their story is non-stop hilarious. It's got action, it's got love, it's got comedy. It's awesome," he sums up.
Wilbur is so jazzed by life, he tends to talk at least a mile a minute, which was a lot of fun for Singerman. "I think Wilbur is one of those guys who just wants to get a lot of things done right here and now," he observes. "I used my natural voice but speeded it way up."
When it came to Wilbur's family, Singerman was in constant awe. "They are just extremely quirky yet each fantastic in their own way," he laughs. "I loved seeing their life in the future and they are so funny - but I think they also show how if you have a lot of trust and belief in yourself and other people, you can achieve anything."
Finally, also joining the cast was director Steve Anderson himself, who took on the pivotal role of the pathetic bad guy, the appropriately named Bowler Hat Guy, who nearly disrupts the entire future. Anderson decided to tackle the role on screen when the voice he developed during the storyboarding process took on a life of its own. "I'm not sure where that voice comes from," Anderson admits. "I think some of it comes from the anger and frustration I feel during morning commutes in traffic! I've always found anger and frustration funny, as I think the root of a lot of comedy is angst. Originally, I gave Bowler Hat Guy a British accent, but as the character evolved, I started pulling back on that, although that same kind of bravado remained."
Anderson also came to the part with a lot of sympathy for the man who is more nincompoop than scoundrel. "I've always loved the mix of villainy and comedy and this guy's got it in spades," he says. "But while the world sees the black cape and the twirled mustache and the evil poses, that's not really who he is. Inside, I think he's really just an excitable kid," says Anderson. "I think of him as almost like a bad theatre actor who is over-acting with all these big gestures and yet nobody is really buying it, because you know it's not coming from inside. He really can't quite pull off that evil persona, which is left in the hands of the film's real bad guy: Doris!"
To Anderson, Bowler Hat Guy even shares some similarities with Lewis. "Usually the hero and villain of a movie have opposite lessons to learn, but both Lewis and Bowler Hat Guy come to see that they have to let go of the things that didn't go right in the past, the things they wish could have been different, and move on - to keep moving forward," he observes. "I think that's really unique."
Switching gears back to director, Anderson enjoyed evoking that same kind of bigger-than-life quality he sought in Bowler Hat Guy from the entire voice cast. "There was no fear in our cast," he summarizes. "And that is so necessary for animation, because it's not about subtlety, it's about big, grand gestures. I was thrilled that our voice talent were all so creative and with all their ad-libs and energy they added so much to the world of Lewis and the Robinsons."
THE ROBINSONS MUSIC: DANNY ELFMAN, RUFUS WAINWRIGHT AND ROB THOMAS JOIN THE FUN
Among the many surprises and delights of MEET THE ROBINSONS is the film's original music - including a pop-driven soundtrack, songs by acclaimed singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright and mega-hit pop star Rob Thomas and an inventive symphonic score from two-time Academy Award® nominee Danny Elfman. The soundtrack album, which features 8 songs and 8 score selections and almost as much joyful diversity as the Robinson family itself, features the lead single "Little Wonders" from Rob Thomas as well as songs from the new runaway hit rock/pop ensemble The All-American Rejects, the dynamic British singer-songwriter and pianist Jamie Cullum, plus bonus tracks from the teenaged, hyper-energized trio, Jonas Brothers, and the ever-innovative pop group They Might Be Giants.
"I am so excited by the music in the movie," says director Steve Anderson, "because it adds even more energy and emotion."
Rufus Wainwright, the Canadian-American who has been lauded as one of the most extraordinary songwriters of his generation, jumped at his chance to become part of the Walt Disney legacy by contributing key songs. "So many great many people have written for Disney movies, from Randy Newman to Elton John and Phil Collins," he notes, "it's become something very coveted and respected. I was honored to be thought about in that way."
Wainwright would ultimately write three songs for the film including Wilbur's theme "Another Believer" (written with Marius de Vries), the Big Band tune "Where Is Your Heart At?" which is sung by Grammy-nominated jazz and pop star Jamie Cullum and the romantic "Motion Waltz (Emotional Commotion)." Wainwright's inspiration came throughout from trying to put himself in the audience's position. "I wanted songs that would be immediately sustaining and really keep their attention," he says.
Jamie Cullum was thrilled to perform Wainwright's song "Where Is Your Heart At?" which hearkens back to the Swing influence of Franny Robinson's frog band. "I love this kind of music that has real roots but also has the flavor of modern pop music," says Cullum.
Also contributing the song "Little Wonders" to MEET THE ROBINSONS is Rob Thomas, the Grammy Award® winning singer/songwriter and lead singer for Matchbox Twenty. Thomas only needed to see a few clips of the early animation for the film to know he wanted to be a part of the project. "I never thought I would get the chance to do something like this," he says. "After seeing a few bits and pieces of the film I was really excited."
It was all he needed for inspiration. "The story itself inspired me, with this orphan trying to figure out who he is through this magical fantasy," Thomas explains. "There was a melody in my head and it all kind of started to flow together. The song is about how people sometimes can get stuck in a bad moment when something is bringing you down and lose sight of the idea that something else will come along to make them happy. Y'know life has its ups and downs but it's all about making the most of those great little moments."
For Steve Anderson, the songs added even more hues and shadings to Lewis' story. "We have the really fun stuff with the Frog Band but I also wanted a couple of songs to really take you into Lewis' inner world and struggles," says the director. "Rufus Wainwright writes about the search for family and then Rob Thomas writes about Lewis finding a family in a completely different way than he ever could have dreamed. The songs become a great part of the journey."
Meanwhile Danny Elfman was crafting a score that matches the Robinson's mix of high-speed hilarity and heart. Elfman, who has created dozens upon dozens of truly distinctive feature film scores - ranging from "Batman" and "Spiderman" to "Good Will Hunting" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Men in Black" and, on the animation side, from "Nightmare Before Christmas" to "Charlotte's Web"--found that MEET THE ROBINSONS still managed to offer something completely different. He saw the chance to flash back to the kind of kaleidoscopic score one heard back in the days of Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies, filled with surprising and entertaining shifts in tempo, tone and style, matching the jazzy energy of the Robinsons, while at the same time providing a lush, romantic background to Lewis' transformational journey.
Elfman comments: "I've always somewhat avoided animation because the music can get kind of silly and spoofy but MEET THE ROBINSONS not only struck me as very creative and crazy in the best sense, but also as very emotional. It meant that, I could, on the one hand do some stuff like Carl Stalling, who composed for the classic Warner Bros. cartoons, while on the other also write big melodic themes that relate to story and character."
Elfman eventually developed distinct themes for each of the film's major characters - a sweeter, yearning theme for the starry-eyed orphan Lewis, a chaotic Latin-inspired theme for the magnificently manic Robinsons and a more mischievous theme for Doris, the evil bowler hat. He was especially inspired by the spirit of the Robinsons. "This family's so over the top and what really sparked me is that their movements are so quick and sudden. They zip around in that classic Golden Age of animation style, so I'd pick a character's movement and just follow them with the music, go right with what they were doing," he explains. "There's also a funny retro attitude to a lot of the music because Steve and the gang gave a distinct retro-futuristic feel to the visuals when we're in the Robinson's world."
Elfman's score was eventually performed and recorded by a 90-piece orchestra, including not only strings but a sizable horn section and even a full choir. "The choral music adds more color, another element. They can do things no other instrument can do," notes Elfman.
In addition to scoring the film, Elfman collaborated with alt-rockers Nick Wheeler and Tyson Ritter of The All-American Rejects to craft the buoyant track "The Future Has Arrived." Performed by The All-American Rejects, the song blends the "funny retro attitude" of Elfman's score with AAR's finely crafted rock/pop sound.
Creating the score and "The Future Has Arrived" turned out to be a total pleasure. "I've done nearly 60 films, but I can only think of maybe 6 that went this smoothly," he confesses. "Working with Steve Anderson and the whole creative team on MEET THE ROBINSONS was just easy and wonderful. It was really the exception to the rule and it was nice to be reminded that movie-making can still be such a joy."
Anderson was equally excited by Elfman's contributions. He comments: "I remember the first time Danny played me a demo. It was for the Future City fly-through scene and I was just glued to every note and my eyes misted up because I thought 'this is so perfect. This is everything I've dreamed about.' Danny just has that ability to know exactly the right thing to do musically to make any moment richer. The comedy is funnier, the tears fall faster, the scary moments are scarier and everything is deeper because of Danny's music."
ANIMATING THE ROBINSONS: THE CHARACTERS COME TO LIFE IN THE COMPUTER
In 2005, Walt Disney Feature Animation added its first fully computer-animated feature film to its long list of technological achievements with the release of "Chicken Little." For the first time, that film put computer tools in the hands of some of the industry's top artistic talents. They, in turn, adapted such classic Disney animation principles as "squash and stretch" - a technique that lends a rounded quality and vibrant, fluid motion to characters - to the CG world with endearingly zany results.
But the characters of MEET THE ROBINSONS would stretch Disney's animators even further and in entirely new directions by presenting them with a species they'd never animated in a computer before: human beings. The filmmakers knew it wouldn't be a simple transition. After all, digitally animating humans in life-like ways has proven fraught with complications in its very brief history. For all the amazing progress computers have made over the last few years, they still haven't quite matched up to the incredible variability of human characteristics. That means compromises have to be made - but for Steve Anderson, the key was making sure, no matter the technical difficulties, that the Robinsons would come off as far more than "cartoon cutouts" and become people the audience actually care about.
Animation supervisor Michael Belzer also began his career in the traditional animation world on such films as "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "James and the Giant Peach," but then did a stint at Pixar where he dove headfirst into the cutting-edge of digital technology. For Belzer, MEET THE ROBINSONS was a chance to combine the classical artistry of Disney with the thrilling new future of digital animation that can go where even animation never went before.
"I think is a really fun time to be an animator," says Belzer, "because we're applying all the history of the past to these new forms, and we had a great opportunity to do that in MEET THE ROBINSONS. We all loved the story so much, it really inspired us."
Belzer oversaw a team of some 66 animators and assistant animators for a period of close to three years. From the beginning, he was keenly aware of the outsized proportions of the mission. "The biggest challenge was going to be animating human beings," he explains. "Because we already live in a 3D world, and our brains are very in tune with that, an audience will notice even the littlest things that are off when it comes to human characters, whether it is their articulation or the way their hair moves or the way their clothing wrinkles. We used the same technology as on 'Chicken Little' but to create a very different type of animated world. And of course with every new digital film, the artists are always looking to improve the techniques."
For Belzer, that meant delving into the tiniest of textural details. "For example, we spent a lot of time adding wrinkles and a more tactile feeling to all of the clothing in the film, which makes the world feel that more palpably real," he says. "One really tough area was Bowler Hat Guy's cape, which created a visual challenge because you have to pay very close mind to any silhouette. For the first time, we actually gave the animators some digital tools to do initial cloth simulations themselves so they could work out a lot of the kinks before we sent it on to the cloth department."
Belzer notes that an area where, even in the digital era, Disney still does things in a distinctive way is in assigning all the main characters his or her own supervising animator. "It's really an exciting way of working and was key to MEET THE ROBINSONS because there are so many unique characters that you can put a lot of personality into," he comments. "This way we have animators who really understand who the characters are and their most subtle nuances, and who will get really passionate about every aspect of how they move and exist. You get that extra emotional quality in the animation because the animators are living and breathing these guys. The audience finds the characters so entertaining because we take them so seriously."
In addition to serving as overall animation supervisor, Belzer also was the supervising animator for the character of Carl the Robot, who employs (Please remove one of the film's most complex arrays of controls, over 600 controls for his vast catalogue of movements. "Oh, I loved working with Carl," Belzer admits. "He's a great character for an animator because he allows you to think in a very unlimited fashion. The thing that's so fun about him was that if I needed him to suddenly have another arm to hold something, we could just make another arm pop out of his chest! There was just a smorgasbord of ideas to play with at every turn."
Steve Anderson thinks one of the most challenging characters for his team to pull off was Bowler Hat Guy. "He's so extreme and the whole design of him is so pushed that there was a lot of debate over just how far to go with him," Anderson explains. "This was also true of Wilbur, who zips around in that Looney Tunes way with lots of smears and blurs - but we wanted to make sure it was something the audience would feel instead of see."
Even as he worked on the minutiae of character textures and motions, Mike Belzer remained devoted to one over-riding goal - evoking not just movements but real personalities and emotions from the way the characters look and feel. "What sets this film apart, I think, is the interaction between the characters," he says. "It's not just the usual situational comedy. There's such heart to it and there are so many emotional connections to each character. Even Bowler Hat Guy, might look like a classic villain but he has his own unique story. I just hope audiences will be as moved as we were by all these characters."
After fully committing himself 100% to all the foibles and futuristic dreams of the characters in MEET THE ROBINSONS, Steve Anderson echoes that sentiment. "I never wavered from that one idea that these characters have a story to tell," he says. "There were a lot of obstacles, technicalities and struggles along the way, but, whatever was happening, we all just kept muttering that one fantastic phrase to ourselves - keep moving forward - and it kept us going all the way."
THE CAST MEETS THE ROBINSONS: CRAFTING THE CHARACTERS
THE ROBINSONS MUSIC: DANNY ELFMAN, RUFUS WAINWRIGHT AND ROB THOMAS JOIN THE FUN
ANIMATING THE ROBINSONS: THE CHARACTERS COME TO LIFE IN THE COMPUTER
MEET THE ROBINSONS IN DISNEY DIGITAL 3D: LEAPING FURTHER FORWARD INTO THE ENTERTAINMENT FUTURE
FUN FACTS AND FIGURES ABOUT MEET THE ROBINSONS
READ MORE ABOUT THE DIRECTOR, WRITER, COMPOSER, AND MUSIC
Interview with Producer Dorothy McKim, a Disney veteran