The old line about swimmer-turned-movie-star Esther Williams, "Dry, she ain't much, but wet, she's a star," applies perfectly to Meet The Robinsons, the latest and most promising attempt to resuscitate Disney's ailing animation studio. Seen in 2D, it's a pleasing, forgettable little time-waster, shrewdly crossing Nickelodeon's Pixie-stick spazziness with Pixar's crisp, bright toy-box quality. In 3D, however, it's Esther Williams in the pool, a gorgeous, enveloping experience that uses the process to give the images unprecedented richness and depth. Past 3D movies have leaned toward "gotcha" gimmickry, but Meet The Robinsons takes a large step toward making 3D a sustainable format, the CinemaScope of tomorrow. Only theaters with digital projection will be capable of showing it in 3D, but this film might lead others to make the upgrade soon.
With his spiky blonde hair and turtle-shell glasses, pint-sized orphan Lewis (Daniel Hansen) appears to be another insufferably precocious Disney hero, but his passion for invention mostly redeems him. For years, Lewis has longed to find suitable guardians, but his goofy eccentricities and misfiring gizmos have put off any prospective parents. Grasping at straws, Lewis throws every ounce of his creative effort into the Memory Scanner, a contraption that he hopes will help him recall his birth mother's identity. But when he brings the machine to a science fair for a test run, a diabolical figure called "Bowler Hat Guy" runs off with it. Resigned to failure, Lewis gets a lift from stranger Wilbur Robinson, who whisks him away in a time machine and gives him a glimpse of things to come.
The Robinsons are a confusing mélange of freaks and geeks, but the world they inhabit is a candy-colored wonderland of transport tubes and flying cars, like a happier, more functional version of Futurama's crumbling tech-utopia. As the film zips around the space-time continuum, it's sometimes hard to keep up, but the writers have fun exploring how the tiniest ripple in the past can snowball into a radically different future. Charming as all these surface layers are—and even in 2D, it's more than passable family fare—Meet The Robinsons really flowers with the extra dimension, which makes an already neato cinematic universe feel palpably inhabitable. There's no doubt Disney will do it again, and perhaps better next time, but for now, it looks like technology could be its creative salvation.