From the creator of "Ice Age
," director Chris Wedge, "Robots" falls into much the same trap as that minor 2002 computer-generated effort. Simply put, 20th Century Fox's animated unit, Blue Sky Productions, cannot keep up with the incendiary heights of Pixar, paling in comparison in the story and character departments and lacking the much-needed heart that makes a passable family film great. With that said, "Robots" is a frequently dazzling eye-opener that is worth seeing just for its visuals of a bustling, futuristic metropolis resided over by a population of mechanical beings.
The hero of the story is Rodney Copperbottom (voiced by Ewan McGregor), a talented aspiring inventor who leaves his parents (Stanley Tucci, Dianne Wiest) and small-town existence to make his dreams come true in Robot City. Once there, Rodney's hopes of meeting famed bigwig inventor Bigweld (Mel Brooks) are dashed when he discovers the company is now lorded over by the tyrannical, money-hungry Phineas T. Ratchet (Greg Kinnear). Instructed by his dastardly, androgynous mother, Madame Gasket (Jim Broadbent), Phineas has made it his mission to sell high-priced parts to the faltering, fading low-mode bot residents. If they are not able to afford it, as is the case with the high-energy Fender (Robin Williams), sweepers are sent out to destroy them and store them in the junkyard. Not one to take such unethical behavior lying down, Rodney teams up with Fender, Fender's kid-sis, Piper (Amanda Bynes), beautiful company exec Cappy (Halle Berry), and the rest of the low-modes to put a stop to Ratchet's plan and right the wrongs of the Bigweld company.
"Robots" has been written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (2000's "Where the Heart Is
"), who cook up a fair share of ingenious comedic fodder as they put a robotic spin on the actual human world. For example, in the robots' world, going into labor means mantling the spare parts of a mechanical baby; public restrooms are divided not by male and female but by input and output symbols; and maps to the stars' homes features celebrities such as Britney Gears. Whereas 2004's mediocre "Shark Tale
" suffered enormously by its flash-in-the-pan pop-cultural references, the ones in "Robots" are more original and appropriate, including funny uses of Britney Spears' "...Baby One More Time" and Chingy's "Right Thurrr."
If director Chris Wedge and screenwriters Ganz and Mandel have the humorous aspects of "Robots" down pat, they are on less solid ground when handling their plot and ensemble characters. The storyline is very thin and a little muddled, zooming at 150mph when 55 would have been fast enough. The frenetic pace will enrapture the small fries in the audiencethey, after all, will like anything this fast and colorfulbut director Wedge is always so determined to get to the next scene that he loses sight of his ragtag protagonists. They are all likable enough, but, save for the quick-witted Fender, are terminally forgettable and underdeveloped.
Halle Berry (2004's "Catwoman
"), as Rodney's sort-of love interest, Cappy, shares top-billing with Ewan McGregor (2003's "Big Fish
") for no determinable reason other than that she is a big name. Berry is barely there and her Cappy is not humanized enough to understand the character's objective. The team of low-modes are voiced by Amanda Bynes (2003's "What a Girl Wants
"), Harland Williams (2005's "Because of Winn-Dixie
"), Drew Carey (TV's "The Drew Carey Show"), and the invaluable Jennifer Coolidge (2004's "A Cinderella Story
"). They are energetic enough in their performances, but stand around looking for something interesting to say that they never find. This is one case where an all-star cast in an animated picture is extraneous. The voices too often call attention to themselves and keep the viewer from believing in the robots as genuine characters. Only Robin Williams (2002's "Insomnia
") calls attention to himself for the right reasons, bringing a zany lovability and warmth to the indomitable Fender that only Williams could achieve.
"Robots" is entertaining, no doubt about it, a gorgeously computer-animated family film that will win over children and has enough slyly mature humor to bring favor to grown-ups. A thrilling sequence in which Rodney and Fender ride a public transportation contraption that catapults them through the air and over cliffs is a rollercoaster ride-like highlight. Ultimately, it is on the basic screenplay level where "Robots" suffers next to the superior heights of something like 2003's "Finding Nemo
," 2004's "Shrek 2
," or 2004's "The Incredibles
;" those are modern animated classics that transcend the rapidly evolving animation format, meticulously developed and thought out and emotionally resonant. "Robots" is creakier, slighter, and more indifferent, as much in need of an oil change as its heroes. Until 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky match Pixar in the monopoly of computer animation, audiences will have to make do with ambitious but flawed productions like "Robots." It doesn't contain a whole lot to grasp onto and take away with you, but it's pleasurable and bright and inoffensive while it lasts. That's honestly not such a bad place to be at.