Having already created a rather simplistic
robot world with Rolie Polie Olie, William Joyce
must have longed to do something a lot more complex. Indeed,
Robots pulses with the children's author's ideas,
an orgy of gorgeous design work and energy.
Anywhere you rest your eye on a scene has
something to catch your attention. Not that you have much
time to rest. Jumping from hyperkinetic moment to moment
under the direction of Chris Wedge (Ice Age), Robots
never lets up. It moves, it thrills, but within its cold
clever calculations it has little in the way of humanity.
What a strange irony.
At first, Wedge has the right balance between
dazzling insanity and simple storytelling instincts. With
the camera casually soaking up the details of Rivet Town,
we meet a dishwashing robot (Stanley Tucci) exult in impending
fatherhood. Though the "birth" and youth of Rodney Copperbottom
plays out briskly, the audience can still connect to it.
Anyone with children has to smile as little Rodney gets
excited about his "big boy parts." (Apparently, robots upgrade
yearly to mark the passage of time.) The mechanical family
dynamic still feels real, and Rodney's dreams of doing something
important with his life certainly resonate.
The imagination at work in these early
sequences has a nice spontaneity as the movie lightly recalls
dozens of Hollywood small town stories. Better yet, it surprises.
For a few moments, anything can happen.
All that falls away. Once the real plot
gets rolling and Ewan McGregor steps into Rodney's voicebox,
the movie becomes as noisy and uncaring as the big city
itself. All the pieces of a plot remain in place as the
small town robot tries to make it big, but nothing gets
fleshed out. Instead, Wedge awkwardly ties everything together
with big action, and the audience barely has time to fill
in the blanks.
It fits with the vibe of the city. The
transportation system resembles a giant game of Mousetrap
or Alarm Clock. As Rodney whizzes through the city, you
can spot a Wheel-o and other dimly remembered children's
toys grown large. It all looks cool, but adds up to nothing,
since nobody ever uses that transport again.
Plot details like that stick out everywhere,
interesting but extraneous as the handle on Robin Williams'
scrounger robot head. Everything happens haphazardly, including
the story's conflict. Before we understand what robots fear,
we see the collusion between villains. We can only assume
it's a bad thing because they look villainous.
All of the scheming can be stopped if Rodney
and friends can find industrial architect Big Weld (Mel
Brooks). For much of the film, his location is treated as
a big mystery. Yet when the time comes to find him, Rodney
and super-svelte executive 'bot Cappy (Halle Berry) have
no trouble. Please don't bother with actual plot complications
when jokes and action can be had.
True, the plot would be hoary anyway, but
it should have new energy because of its mechanoid setting.
Originally the movie had been intended to tweak old Hollywood
musicals, and every now and then a scene starts to lean
that way - at one point Williams' character spoofs Singing
in the Rain. Unfortunately, every action has an opposite
reaction; when something springs to life, it gets too
Not even decent voicework can save it.
McGregor does all-American quite well, but to no avail.
In essentially a reprise of Aladdin's genie, Williams
does his thing and gets some laughs, but it's hard to capture
the organic nature of the comedian in metal, though his
character does look like him. Almost everyone else has a
thankless task. As the villainous Ratchet, Greg Kinnear
barely registers. Maybe Berry brought a lot of heart to
Cappy, but with only a handful of lines, it's hard to tell.
Even Brooks seems to be phoning it in, albeit with a jocular
Robots has attitude
in spades, actually. But like the Tin Man (who cameos),
what it really needs is a heart.