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Robots

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/10/05 23:40:30

"Visually, it's amazing. Plotwise, not so much."
3 stars (Just Average)

After “Ice Age,” “Robots,” the follow-up feature from Chris Wedge and Blue Sky Studios, feels like something of a letdown, story-wise. It’s lacking the heart, warmth, and humor the previous film had in spades. “Ice Age,” too underrated by many critics, had sweetness and charm to spare; “Robots,” meanwhile, lacks any real staying power, relying on forgettable plot points and overly loud comedy for a more shallow kind of entertainment.

And yet, from both a visual and imaginative standpoint, “Robots” is light years ahead of its predecessor. I mean, just look at this thing, will ya? It’s a wondrous world inhabited by all manner of living mechanical beings, who apparently have based their entire society on Rube Goldberg contraptions. The highlight of the film is a trip through Robot City inside a pinball of sorts, which rockets our hero around town with the help of slides, springs, and a giant hammer. It’s an explosion of invention.

The film is crammed with moments like this, bits of wonder that get the viewer stretching to see what delight is hiding in the background. Granted, the story falls to the side, but this is forgivable when there’s just so much energy at work in the art department. In fact, the animation is the true star of the movie. Everything here is vibrant and eye-popping, with an impressive attention to detail (you can spend days looking for every last nut and bolt in the endless array of machinery). There’s a crisp look to even the rustiest of robots, matching the movie’s light, upbeat tone.

I’d have loved to have been able to sit in on the design meetings for this film, as I would have had a chance to see imaginations soar. You see, most of the robot characters here are worn-down models who rely heavily on “hand-me-downs” and other found objects as spare parts. The result is a series of characters that look like the result of crazed tinkering: one has sink stoppers for ears; for others, clocks, thermometers, and other gauges stand in for eyes. And then there’s the robot who works as a dishwasher in a diner… by actually being a dishwasher.

The backgrounds are even better, a city overflowing with business. In a mechanical world, things are always happening, and the more, the better. It’s all one big flight of fancy, and all this eye candy wins plenty of big smiles. Even when the story begins to slip off its track, at least you know you’ll be in for some visual delights.

Although let’s not slight the writers entirely. The sometimes-they’re-great, sometimes-they’re-pure-evil writing team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (everything from “Splash” and “Parenthood” - yay! - to “Fathers’ Day” and “Where the Heart Is” - boo!) put a fine polish on Jim McClain and Ron Mita’s story about good-hearted inventor robot Rodney Copperbottom (voiced by Ewan McGregor) who ventures to Robot City to make it big, only to uncover a scheme from slick tycoon Ratchet (Greg Kinnear) to do away with all outmoded robots. Fluff? Sure. Likable? Yup.

If nothing else, it manages to keep grown-ups as interested as the kids. It’s fast without being too frantic, funny without being too pushy (although we do get the inevitable failed pop culture references, and a fart joke scene may put off many a parent). It’s a light, quick adventure with medium ambitions, and that’s alright.

And while we may lament the inclusion of all those pop references and poop gags, the script does manage to sneak in a fair share of wit. This is evident right in the early scenes, when Rodney’s parents prepare for the arrival of their new baby. (“The fun’s in making the baby” has a whole new meaning here.) The writers had a lot of fun converting our world into robot world, and it shows. While not as crackling as other recent cartoons, there are enough usable punchlines here to make “Robots” a nice little comedy.

As for the voice cast, it’s yet another big name lineup - gone forever, it seems, are the days when professional voice actors could land lead roles in such works. Here, it’s a mixed bag. McGregor does a great job with his aw shucks, naďve small town boy part, putting enough liveliness into his voice that he helps sell the character as a likable hero. Meanwhile, Kinnear makes for a fine corporate scumbag; Mel Brooks brings some zest as Rodney’s role model; and whaddya know, even the usually irritating Amanda Bynes works out here, playing a spunky kid sister.

On the downside, however, we also get Halle Berry as what I think was supposed to be a love interest of sorts for Rodney, although the part is far too underwritten. (How does this happen to Berry, that even in a cartoon, she lands the crappy throwaway role?) The actress brings nothing to the film, nor does the character, which probably could have been written out without any real effect on the plot. For this, she gets second billing?

And then we come to Robin Williams. You figure the filmmakers hired him because he’s Robin Williams, and maybe he’ll bring a little bit of that “Aladdin” magic with him. But that could have backfired, since his role, the rundown tramp ’bot Fender, isn’t built to be quite so manic as Genie was. Fortunately, Williams restrains himself to just a few ad libbed rampages, several of which are actually pretty funny. And even though his character eventually lands himself in a limp, overlong “Singin’ In the Rain” parody (don’t ask) and, later, a horrible, overlong Britney Spears reference (seriously, don’t ask), these can’t be blamed on Williams, who in fact puts out, in his mellower scenes, a rather fine performance.

But then, we come back to the story, which fizzles in too many spots for it to reach the heights of, say, any Pixar movie. But it still works enough, and, like “Shark Tale” (which wasn’t great, but wasn’t nearly as awful as many have claimed), it can make do as passable kiddie entertainment - a few good jokes, some crisp action, a lesson or two learned, nothing more. Which is a shame, because as animation, it’s brilliant. If only the story was as sharp.

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