Robots (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Robots is every bit as visually engaging as the best of the Pixar (or Dreamworks) digitally animated fare. The landscapes are stunning, the characters are intricately formed, there's plenty of break-neck action, and Robin Williams provides a helping of belly laughs. Despite these positive qualities, Robots never seems more than passably entertaining. In fact, it more often resembles the template for a video game (with the interactivity removed in theaters - no doubt that will be restored for the X-Box and PlayStation 2 discs) than a fully realized motion picture. It doesn't take long to uncover the culprit for Robots' lack of inspiration. The pedestrian plot is aimed squarely at five-year olds.

Screenwriters Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel have never been known for their subtlety (even their best work - like Splash, Parenthood, and A League of Their Own - employs shameless manipulation). In Robots, they beat the audience into senselessness with the film's message. The only way a viewer could walk out of Robots not realizing the importance of following one's dream is if sleep overtook that audience member a few minutes into the film. This kind of approach is fine for children; adults will find it tiring.

Leave it to Robin Williams to save the day. While his vocal performance isn't quite up to the standard he established in Aladdin, it's only a rung lower. It brings life and energy to Robots. Most of Williams' dialogue has an improvisational quality to it - as if he was told the substance of his dialogue, but was given carte blanche as far as word choice and delivery. The result is a sense of spontaneity. We're never quite sure what Williams' animated alter-ego is going to say or do next. That element of the film will keep adults interested long after the storyline has shifted into autopilot. Unfortunately, when it comes to vocal performances, Williams is the only actor worth mentioning. None of his co stars - Ewan McGregor, Halle Berry, Drew Carrey, Jim Broadbent, Mel Brooks, or Greg Kinnear - offer anything more memorable than a generic performance. They read their lines, but don't do more. Next to them, Williams seems fresher than he might in more favorable circumstances.

The story is familiar fairy-tale stuff: a boy leaves home to pursue his dreams and ends up doing great deeds. It's Pinocchio crossed with The Wizard of Oz. In this case, the boy happens to be a robot named Rodney Copperbottom (voice of McGregor), an "outmode" (older, less streamlined model) who leaves the sleepy hamlet of Rivet Town for the metropolis of Robot City. His goal is to seek out Bigweld (Mel Brooks), his hero. But, when he arrives, Rodney learns that Bigweld has disappeared and things are being run by the sleek, vain Phineas T. Ratchet (Greg Kinnear) and his evil mother, the spider-like Madame Gasket (Jim Broadbent). Those two unsavory robots are pursuing a Hitler-esque plot of eliminating all outmodes so that the surviving population of "upgrades" looks a lot like Ratchet (the underlying reasons have more to do with greed than ethnic cleansing, however). With the help of some new friends, including the irrepressible Fender (Williams) and the obligatory love interest, Cappy (Halle Berry), Rodney sets out to find Bigweld and rescue the city from the clutches of Ratchet.

If the plot doesn't grab you, the look of the film will. Directors Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha, who were in charge for Ice Age (to-date, the least impressive of the digitally animated features), have fashioned a robot world to stir the imagination. With sets looking like a wild hybrid of early Amazing Stories cover illustrations and erector sets gone mad, Robots amps up the eye candy factor to an astonishing level. Each of the robots is unique, and clearly not designed using the "form follows function" rule. (Many appear to have been inspired by the Star Wars 'droids.) Gaudy colors run riot. Rube Goldberg contraptions abound, showing up everywhere from the city's transportation system to the domino games in Bigweld's abode. The ooh/aah factor is greater in Robots than in many of its digitally animated kin, but that only partially compensates for the hollowness of the story and the lifelessness of all but one of the characters.

The movie is peppered with content guaranteed to guard against the encroachment of boredom for those with short attention spans. An action sequence intervenes about every five-to-ten minutes (most of which feel like animated roller coaster rides). There are plenty of pop culture throw-ins, like James Earl Jones' voice intoning, "The Force is strong with this one." (For those seven words, Jones earns a spot in the opening credits.) And, of course, there's the humor. 90% of this comes from Williams (and a few lines are off-color, although the innuendo will go over the heads of most young viewers), but there are also things like the mandatory staple of child-centered movies: the fart joke. And many gags come at the expense of the character named "Aunt Fanny."

If you have kids, there's little chance that you'll escape seeing this movie, and, when you go, you'll probably enjoy yourself. But Robots is not one of those don't-miss animated digital movies that works as well for adults as for children. The journeys of Shrek and the adventure of The Incredibles (to name but two) put Robots to shame. This is passable, disposable spring entertainment, and welcome more because of the paucity of family-friendly films currently available in theaters. Robots is more than a load of spare parts, but there are some sprockets and rivets missing.

Robots (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2005-03-11
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1