"The part's in the right place, but it doesn't quite work."
As an animated film, "Robots" is a curious machine. It has several promising components: a proven team at the helm (Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha from "Ice Age"), a horde of talented voice actors (everyone from Jennifer Coolidge to Jim Broadbent to Stanley Tucci) and a primary conceit that cleverly slams the consumer-driven attitude that turns most cartoons into glorified advertising.After they're put together, though, the parts to "Robots" synchronize clumsily. After some flashes of wit and wonder, the film feels curiously lethargic and empty. For all of its commendable satire on our disposable culture and our tendency not to give our fellow creatures their due, "Robots" sometimes has less emotional impact than a public service announcement.
The opening bodes well. An excited dishwasher droid (Tucci) comes running home to find his wife (Dianne Weist) starting to assemble their new son. They're impoverished but happy parents and have instilled in the metal lad a sense of initiative and creativity.
Part of their joy may be due to the fact that they have an advantage over human parents. When their little Rodney Copperbottom starts to cry, they can turn down the volume on his blubbering.
As a young adult, Rodney (Ewan McGregor) decides to leave for the not so creatively named Robot City to make his fortune as an inventor. When he arrives, he discovers his hero Big Weld (Mel Brooks) no longer runs the company that makes upgrades and spare parts for all the bots in the world and has no use for inventors like himself.
The new head honcho Ratchet (Greg Kinnear) wants to stop making replacement parts altogether and only issue expensive upgrades. If a robot merely needs a new neck joint, that's too bad because now the world's machines have two choices: pay through the ball bearings or die.
Rodney soon finds that his skills are needed because he can easily turn scrap metal into new pieces and in the process make a monkey wrench out of Ratchet.
At this point the movie loses momentum when it should be grinding into high gear. Much of the blame can be laid at the doorstep of screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (working from Jim McCain and Ron Mita's story). The duo rarely pass up an opportunity to celebrate bodily functions when they could be developing character or tightening the story. Who knew that robots had such a problem with flatulence?
Casting Jennifer Coolidge as a machine named Aunt Fanny (can you guess how she got that name?) only reminds viewers that the filmmakers went for cheap laughs instead of really maximizing the potential of the tale.
In the end, the galaxy of Oscar-winners and A-listers doing the voices becomes a liability. Many times performers like Halle Berry and Drew Carey seem to get lost in flat, uninteresting roles. It might be a nifty stunt to have James Earl Jones cast as a voice box for a single line, but it seems like an insult not to put his renowned pipes to better use.
Wedge and Saldanha do manage to offer a lot of visual thrills. When Rodney and his new sidekick Fender (Robin Williams) take a ride through Robot City's public transit, viewers discover a convoluted path that would make Rube Goldberg proud.
Still the action scenes often seem like a diversion instead of a standard feature. In "The Incredibles," for example, the filmmakers were much better able to juggle the laughter and the adrenaline."Robots" is hardly a joyless experience, but you wonder if the thought, effort and expense that went into casting Jay Leno as the voice of a fire hydrant might have been better placed elsewhere.