On another level, though, it's a time-travel romp about evil bowler hats, talking (and singing) frogs, an octopus butler, an intergalactic pizza delivery superhero guy, robots with self-image issues, darkness, doom and dinosaurs, Magritte-like topiaries and a quirky clan with a hereditary disposition for cowlicks.
Faithfully transplanting Joyce's richly colored, retro-style images to the screen, director Stephen Anderson's adaptation - and elaboration - of the Robinson book is wild and wacky, witty and surprisingly sweet.
Its hero is Lewis, a 12-year-old foundling who, with his big round glasses and head of cornstalk-tall yellow hair, is a prime candidate for adoption - if it weren't for his obsession with inventing things. The room he shares with his nebbishy friend Goob is constantly being blown apart or splattered with the mechanical detritus of a contraption gone awry. Would-be parents come in for an eager look-see and leave smeared in projectile ooze.
And, anyway, on the brink of teendom, Lewis isn't so sure he wants an adoptive family after all. He has it in his mind to invent a memory scanner. That way, he can go back to the day, as a newborn, when he was left on the orphanage's steps and capture a mental image of his mother. And then he can track her down.
It is this gizmo - a pile of kitchen appliances and Hoover cannister, nuts, bolts, vintage radio and TV tube - that is the source of Lewis' trouble, and adventure. For some reason, the villainous Bowler Hat Guy (yes, a villain in a bowler hat) is after the thing, and so is Wilbur Robinson, a kid who claims to be from tomorrow - and has a time machine to prove it.
Plot-wise, Meet the Robinsons grapples with that old and tricky sci-fi conundrum: If you travel back in time and interfere in your own history, does it change your fate - and the fates of friends, family and the world to be?
Picture-wise, Meet the Robinsons is dazzling. Lewis' present-day cityscape has a tidy geometry about it, in contrast to the future inhabited by the crazy Robinsons gang, with its sleek, curvy architecture, verdant expanses of garden and genetically engineered amphibians. One of the great throwaway lines in the film happens when Bowler Hat Guy spies a group of these dapper green creatures and remarks, "Talking frogs, with their own little outside bar, and smartly dressed!"
Unlike a lot of family fare these days, Meet the Robinsons isn't afraid to get dark, or weird. An alternate vision of the future - a parallel what-if?-scape - is a petrochemical nightmare of hissing factories, noirish goop and bowler-hatted (yes, a recurring theme) drones. But it's beautiful, too, in a spooky, surreal way.
With the voices of, among others, Angela Bassett, Laurie Metcalf, Tom Selleck, Daniel Hansen, Jordan Fry and director Anderson, Meet the Robinsons snaps along like a fast-talking '30s screwball comedy. Simply put, it's terrific.
Meet the Robinsons ***1/2 (Out of four stars)
Produced by Dorothy McKim, directed by Stephen Anderson, written by Jon Bernstein, Michelle Spitz, Don Hall, Nathan Greno, Aurian Redson, Joe Mateo and Anderson, based on A Day With Wilbur Robinson by William Joyce, music by various artists, distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 32 mins.
Lewis....... Daniel Hansen, Jordan Fry
Wilbur. . . Wesley Singerman
Mildred. . . Angela Bassett
Parent's guide: G (mildly scary images)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/stevenrea.