Originally posted 3/25/05
Director: Chris Wedge, with co-director Carlos Saldanha
Writers: Screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire and Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel, based on a story by Ron Mita & Jim McClain and David Lindsay-Abaire
Producer: Jerry Davis, John C. Donkin, William Joyce
Featuring the voices of: Ewan MacGregor, Robin Williams, Mel Brooks, Greg Kinnear, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Amanda Bynes, Jennifer Coolidge, Drew Carey, Stanley Tucci, Dianne Weist, Paul Giamatti
Robots is an absolute delight for the eyes. Through the work of production designer William Joyce, art director Steve Martino and a gifted crew of animators from the Fox-based Blue Sky, it’s a fast and colorful riot of gears, springs, bearings and dials. The world of Robot City is endlessly imaginative and machined to a fare-thee-well, the characters so tactile you want to pick them up and play with them, pining for the days when all really cool toys were made out of die-cast metal. I can practically recommend the movie simply so you can appreciate its manic geometry.
Those adults looking for sneaky pleasures while their kids soak it all up, though, will have to be satisfied with sporadically clever gags and the eye candy, because Robots has a rather lazy and overly-familiar story to tell. At times the plot seems to lurch forward simply out of habit, relying on your familiarity with its clichés to stretch across the gulf in effort between the painting of this gorgeous world and making any emotional connection to it.
Our hero is Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan MacGregor), an enthusiastic child from the day he’s “delivered” to his parents – packed in a shipping crate with assembly instructions. Raised by a dishwasher (Stanley Tucci) and a homemaker (Dianne Weist), he grows up without much luxury (his “big boy parts” are always hand-me-downs from older cousins), but he dreams of making it big someday as an inventor. His hero is Big Weld (Mel Brooks), who is giant, round, and operates like a mix between Walt Disney and Willy Wonka. He is the most famous of robot inventors, and swears that anyone who dreams hard enough can walk into his factory and present their wares.
Rodney creates a little gizmo he calls Wonderbot (Chris Wedge), which fits in a coffee pot and can handle all sorts of tasks, as long as it’s relatively calm. He hopes it can help out at work, since Dad is beginning to wear down and spare parts are hard to come by. But that doesn’t turn out too well, so Rodney decides to take the leap and move from Rivet Town to the metropolis of Robot City to seek his fortune and finally meet Big Weld.
He gets there to find it is not all like he dreamed, though – the city is vast and complicated, and the Big Weld factory not the welcoming paradise he used to see on TV. Big Weld has been “retired” to a non-participating emeritus position – that is to say, no one’s seen him in a couple of years, and the board is now dominated by the vain and ruthlessly profit-minded Phinneas T. Ratchet (Greg Kinnear).
He wants to take Big Weld Industries out of the spare parts business and exclusively sell shiny upgrades, perpetually making people feel bad about themselves if they don’t have the latest expensive equipment. And if you can’t afford it, that makes you an “outmode”, vulnerable to being harvested for scrap metal.
Rodney stands against this, and falls in with a group of “scavengers” led by Fender (Robin Williams) a manic con artist who can’t keep all his parts attached. Williams is a brilliant improviser whose work as the Genie in Aladdin years ago helped open the floodgates of celebrities “starring” in animated work, but he’s rarely more insufferable than when he’s completely unrestrained. Here, he scores plenty of laughs, and plenty of clunkers in between them. I wonder how many crucial minutes of potential plot-enrichment were sacrificed to make way for more of the “ad libs” he’s been using for years – really, do people still chuckle at Señor Wences jokes?
At one point, one of the scavengers, voiced by Drew Carey, has a transformative moment where he declares that he is sick of complaining about everything. I had a double-take – wait, was that your defining characteristic? There is such a glut of celebrity voices and characters whose motives are haphazardly sketched, it feels as if it’s just expected we will recognize them in their traditional roles and move on.
Nowhere is this more true than with the character of Cappy (Halle Berry), a board member at Big Weld Industries. She rejects Ratchet’s methods and affections, and admires and comes to love Rodney. I defy you to name one trait she has beyond that. This is not the way to make us care about characters.
It’s not that there aren’t abundant joys on screen – as with their previous movie Ice Age, the Blue Sky animators show a snappy and irreverent sense of timing heavily influenced by the Looney Tunes work of Chuck Jones. And any fan of the great Futurama knows there is a bottomless supply of gags present in a world where almost every machine is potentially a living robot. The music is eclectic and lively, from percussion work by the Blue Man Group, to cuts from Tom Waits and Stereogram, to a laugh-out-loud perfectly placed Kenny G tune.
It’s a shame that a mechanical world showing such untethered variety should deliver to us so thoroughly square a plot; it doesn’t even seem to excite the filmmakers except when it brings them to the next opportunity for visual flourish. I’ve labored the entire review to avoid this joke, but damn it, if Robots only had a heart…