by Jay Seaver
Look at that title: "Robots". I'll be that one word was bulk of the pitch to Fox, too. As in "do you know what's a natural for a computer animated feature? Robots." After all, they've got no hair, are made up of pretty basic geometric shapes, and can believably use simple color schemes; that has got to save on the processing power. Of course, "Robots" is hardly the first digitally-animated feature to suggest that sort of origin. Consider "Toy Story", "Antz", "A Bug's Life", or "SharkTale" (which ironically started life with a more story-oriented name, "Shark-Slayer").The thoroughly mercenary origins suggested by the name don't disqualify "Robots" from being a good movie. Director Chris Wedge realizes his robot world as a place of bright colors, whimsical architecture, and a delightfully retro-futuristic design sense. It would be an even better movie if some of the five credited writers had stretched, coming up with something really unique and more consistently funny.
"I liked 'Robots'; but then, I really like robots."
The story follows a relatively familiar pattern - young Rodney Copperbottom (voice of Ewan McGregor) comes to Robotropolis, hoping to make his fortune selling his idea for a little helper robot to Bigweld Industries. But it's no longer the open-to-innovation company presided over by the jovial, Walt Disney-like Bigweld (voice of Mel Brooks); now, the board room is filled with sleek, grey corporate robots, led by smooth, oily Ratchet (voice of Greg Kinnear). He throws Rodney out while trying to make the moves on Cappy (voice of Halle Berry), who doesn't like his plan to force robots to buy upgrades by no longer selling spare parts, and any robot who doesn't - well, they're an outmode, and need to be recycled. Meanwhile, Rodney falls in with a group of robots living at a boarding house, including spastic Fender (voice of Robin Williams), his sister Piper (voice of Amanda Bynes), and cynical Crank (voice of Drew Carey). When the local robots find out that Rodney can repair them and save them from the scrap heap operated by Madame Gasket (voice of Jim Broadbent), Ratchet starts to see him as a threat.
The best parts of the movie are the robot-specific stuff - the groaner Rodney's parents come up with about how making the baby is more fun than delivery, amused me, and I think anyone who has ever had an old anything that they've tried to keep working, whether it be a car or an old computer, will find something familiar in the plot. Making upgrade fatigue a matter of life and death is the cleverest idea the movie has, and I wish there was more in that vein. Yet, soon the movie is doing fart jokes. I've got no problem with fart jokes, personally, but what do robots fart for? For that matter, what do they fart with? Sure, I'll buy that they make male and female robots to emulate some lost memory of humanity, but breaking wind? And speaking of the male and female robots, having a boy robot end up with girl parts is funny once, but going back to that well later comes off as running out of ideas.
One of the most important elements in making a good animated feature - right up there with a good screenplay, really - is how the film is designed. I love the way Wedge, along with production designed William Joyce and art director Steve Martino, go for a 1950s aesthetic in Rodney's hometown and much of Robotropolis. The characters look like old-fashioned tin toys; it's not hard to imagine springs inside. It's part of a mostly unified visual sense; household appliances, signs, and even the box baby Rodney comes in all share the same look. It also allows the character designers to use some wildly variant body types: The Copperbottoms, Fender, and Piper are basically humanoid, but Crank has wheels, "Aunt Fanny" an amazingly prodigious posterior, and Bigweld is practically a sphere. The design falters a bit with the corporate 'bots like Ratchet and Cappy; the sleek grey lines and mass-manufactured look fit, but the lack of individuality makes it hard for Cappy to project much warmth or separate herself from the others with similar design.
Robotropolis itself is a nifty enough achievement. The Rube Goldberg contraption that Rodney and Fender use to leave the train station is throughly gratuitous, but perfectly reasonable if you posit that this civilization evolved from toys. Somewhat less exciting is the big final action scene, which takes place in Madame Gasket's scrap yard and just goes on and on, filled with gags which are only rarely memorable.
Similarly, a little Robin Williams goes a long way, but at least Williams has a distinctive, expressive voice, as does Drew Carey and Mel Brooks. I'm not certain what the point of casting Halle Berry in an animated movie is; I don't hate her, but I can't say her voice is a reason I've gone to a movie. MacGregor's a decent everyman lead, but my favorite vocal performance is probably Paul Giamatti as Tim, the tiny puppet-like robot who watches the gate to Bigweld Industries (it doesn't hurt that he's written as a cute little character who is a complete jerk).If I'm honest, I'm probably rating "Robots" a little highly here; it's a pretty thoroughly mediocre movie with problems. But I like robots, and I like the design featured in the movie. Is that enough to make it a good movie? No, not really, but it's enough for me to like it.
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originally posted: 06/22/05 14:18:01