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Robots (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 11 March 2005
“Robots” is yet another dazzling CGI-animated feature, and it’s not even from Pixar. The production company was Blue Sky and the distributor 20th Century-Fox, the same team that produced the winning “Ice Age” a couple of years back. So many CGI movies have been so good that it’s starting to get a little creepy. But honest, it only seems like animated movies are better these days when done in CG imagery. The real reasons they’re so good are that they get all the dough and attract all the younger animation talent. But have fun while it lasts.

And “Robots” is tremendous fun, whether you see it in your local neighborhood theater or venture into expensive-parking-land to see it in IMAX. It will look terrific either way—it’s the best eye candy in years, and you’ll need to see it several times to spot all the inventive gags.

What we see is wonderful, though what we hear—the actual plot—verges on the ordinary. There’s nothing especially inventive about the script by playwright David Lindsey-Abaire and long-time comedy writing team Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. It’s the usual thing about a plucky rural type arriving in the Big City hoping to make good. He’s almost thwarted by the wicked machinations—literally in this case—of a corporate big shot, but at the end rallies the Little People and a few Big People to his cause and saves the day, gets the girl, reunites with his parents and cures cancer. It’s a shame that a movie that’s so awesomely inventive visually resorted to such a standardized plot and familiar comedy bits. I mean, why would creatures that don’t digest even know what farts are, much less think they’re the source of of ripe raucous humor?

But mostly, “Robots” triumphs over its tendency to grasp at familiar humor straws. No other movie has looked remotely like this. Production designer (and children’s book author) William Joyce was the head of a truly talented team of artists. A book of the art of “Robots” has already been published, and it seems a likely sale to anyone who sees the movie—because it’s the visuals here that sell the whole shebang.

Not that the voice talent is minor. Recently, there has been a strong tendency for animated movies to employ big-name voices; this was not the case in Walt Disney’s day. The voice talent in “Robots” is a roster of A-list names, starting with Ewan McGregor, who does a spot-on American accent as young hero Rodney Copperbottom, come to Robot City in hopes of working for the greatest robot inventor of all time, Bigweld (Mel Brooks).

Greg Kinnear, who shows himself to be as lively and creative a voice talent as he did an acting talent (thereby surprising almost everyone). He’s Perfidious T. Ratchet, the sleek, modernized, updated corporate shark (he even has a fin on his head) who’s exiled Bigweld and is now running the old ‘bot’s company. He’s got his lenses on Cappy (Halle Berry), a board member who’s not so sure that Ratchet’s ideas are hunky or dory. Bigweld’s motto was “You can shine no matter what you’re made of;” Ratchet’s replacement motto is “Why be you when you can be new?”
In this world of robots—we never see a single living animal—the inhabitants buy whatever parts are necessary as the old ones wear out. They also buy baby kits and assemble them at home. But Ratchet’s plan is to cease making replacement parts, offering instead only shiny upgrades. Those who can’t afford the expensive upgrades will be sent to the smelting pots, operated by his very nasty mother (voiced by Jim Broadbent).

Rodney can’t get by the cackling, hand-puppet-like gate guard (Paul Giamatti) at the entrance to Bigweld’s company, and ends up in the street with a rag-tag group of obsolete robots. Fender (Robin Williams) is his best pal, but is inclined to drop parts all too frequently—his head, his arms, little things like that. His sister Piper (Amanda Bynes, excellent) thinks Rodney is cute. Others along for the ride include Crank (Drew Carey), Aunt Fanny—who has a large one (Jennifer Coolidge), and Lug (Harland Williams).

Rodney has invented a highly utilitarian little robot, housed in an enameled coffee pot. It goes great guns at the small town restaurant, Gunk’s, where Rodney’s father (Stanley Tucci) works—he’s the dishwasher—so dad and mom (Dianne Wiest) sadly but hopefully send Rodney off to the big city. However, Ratchet is contemptuous of Rodney and his flying coffee pot, and Bigweld is nowhere to be found. Will Rodney’s amazing talent for invention and repair be put to good use? Can Rodney and his rusty passle of friends find Bigweld and save the day?

But as I keep saying, the reason to see “Robots” is not the story; it’s everything else. Color is used not to dazzle but to illuminate and express the feeling of the scenes; lighting—which of course is also created in the computer—is used very well, and with great variety. The backgrounds are incredible; two different reviews said the movie’s visual style blends “Metropolis” and Rube Goldberg, and that’s the truth. When Rodney first arrives in the big city, he and Fender are whisked across the cityscape in the wackiest, most dazzling transportation system in movie history, part pinball machine, part Wheel-O magnetic toy, part—well, almost everything.

The sheer inventiveness of this movie’s creative team can take your breath away with what’s in the background and the foreground, as when Rodney and Fender accidentall spill millions of ball bearings and do a slippery dance. As when Bigweld is finally found in his laboratory that’s set up with millions of dominoes. Yes, they all fall over—and then the rotund Bigweld surfs on them. As down in the Chop Shop, where robots pound other robots to pieces (to the tune of the only worthy song in the movie) and feed them on endless conveyer belts to the melting pots. As when Fender bursts into a Gene Kelly-like rendition of “Singin’ in the Oil.” (Not the only movie reference; an old friend from Over the Rainbow turns up several times.)

The designs come from everywhere. Director Chris Wedge took his team to junkyard, antique shops and other places to see machines old and new. They studied toys and other gadgets to see how one thing links to another. All of this is in play in the background and foreground; the buildings are semi-Art Deco, semi-surrealistic, the robots themselves range from steam-driven to the sleek Ratchet. Everyday objects—pencil sharpeners, mixers, telephones, mailboxes—can turn up anywhere, from a robot to a building, or even both. There’s a very weird bit with a talking lamppost, for example, and a brief flurry of gags when Rodney is magnetized; his motions here are extremely impressive.

The weaknesses of “Robots” all stem from the script. The gags, including Robin William’s profusion of them, are rarely much better than okay. The characters are mostly uninteresting standard types, with only a few standouts, like Kinnear’s Ratchet. And the story is altogether too “been there, seen that” from one end to the other. However, the movie is so immensely imaginative in how it looks, in the designs of the buildings and characters, that a lot of the weaknesses simply don’t matter. No, this is not up there with the best of Pixar, such as last year’s “The Incredibles,” but it’s still a lot of fun, and absolutely amazing to look at.

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