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Director: Chris Wedge
Co-director: Carlos Saldanha
Screenplay: Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel (story by Jim McClain & Ron Mita)
Voices: Halle Berry (Cappy), Mel Brooks (Bigweld), Amanda Bynes (Piper), Drew Carey (Crank), Jennifer Coolidge (Aunt Fanny), Paul Giamatti (Tim the Gate Guard), Greg Kinnear (Ratchet), Ewan McGregor (Rodney Copperbottom), Stanley Tucci (Herb Copperbottom), Dianne Wiest (Mrs. Copperbottom), Robin Williams (Fender)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 2005
Country: U.S.
Robots Much as I wanted to, I had a hard time getting into the vibe of Robots, the latest computer-animated comedy from the makers of Ice Age (2002). Part of it is because the movie is too busy and labored for its own good; you can literally see the overexertion oozing from the corners the screen as the filmmakers try to convince you every second of their crazy humor, sly in-jokes, and larger-than-life visions. There is no sense of the smoothness that makes Pixar’s animated films so brilliant and memorable; there’s just effort.

More to the point, though, is the characters themselves, all of whom are, obviously, robots. Robots takes place in an alternate world in which everyone and everything is mechanical. Babies aren’t born, but rather come in boxes “with some assembly required” (this does, admittedly, lead to an amusing joke about the “birth” of a baby robot coming after “12 hours of labor”). It’s anthropomorphism for the machine age run amok, as lightposts, watches, and dishwashers are all just as “human” as the robots who inhabit the world … which is the problem. The tin-bucket robots characters are just as robotic in personality as they are in form, thus they never come across as being particularly interesting or sympathetic.

The hero of the story is Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor), as bland as hero as they come. He is a bright, aspiring inventor who leaves the sticks (that is, Gasket Town) for the fabled glories of Robot City, where he hopes to work for Bigweld (Mel Brooks), a media-savvy, but unbelievably equal-opportunity entrepreneur who is widely considered “the greatest robot in the world.” Unfortunately for Rodney, Bigweld is nowhere to be found and his megacorporation has been taken over by the sneaky Ratchet (Greg Kinnear), who plans to get rid of all outmoded robots (read: the lower class) by stopping production on replacement parts and only manufacturing upgrades (his new corporate motto is “Why be you when you can be new?”). Unfortunately, the proletariat heroes of the story can’t afford upgrades, thus they’re destined for scrap metal.

Rodney eventually aligns himself with a bunch of outmoded robots, who are led by Fender, voiced with typically maniacal glee by Robin Williams. Williams brings his unique energy to every scene he’s in, stealing it out from underneath the likes of McGregor’s yawn-including working-class hero, his consciousness-raised corporate would-be girlfriend (Halle Berry), and a host of other largely forgettable rusty-metal characters.

On a purely allegorical level, there are some interesting things to be said about class, commercialism, ego ideals, and the loss of individuality, and one could almost imagine Robots as a sharp, concise science fiction short story. However, this is a kids’ movie through and through, and any intellectual baggage it might be carrying is dropped in favor of screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel’s simple plot mechanics, outsized bathroom humor, and heard-it-before Disneyesque moralizing about the power of believing in yourself.

Robots is certainly bursting with kinetic energy, so much so that its rollercoaster vibe becomes almost overwhelming. Robot City is a designer’s dream, but it is mostly seen in a blur as Rodney flies about in the city’s mass transit system that is apparently based on the mechanics of a pinball machine. It’s a visual rush, but it makes no sense whatsoever, not even in the surreal mindset of a cartoon; it’s more exhausting than exciting.

The brightly colored visuals, given that eye-catching three-dimensionality and detail of texture that only computer animation can render, also works against the movie in making its characters seem that much more mundane and uninteresting. The filmmakers have lined up an amazing array of celebrity voices, from Paul Giamatti as an obnoxious jack-in-the-box security guard, to Jennifer Coolidge as a matronly robot with an enormous derriere, to Jay Leno as a fire hydrant, but they’re mired with tired jokes that don’t live up to the film’s visual delights.

Overall Rating: (2)

Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

All images copyright ©2005 20th Century-Fox

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