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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 wound up.

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 attitude.

Robots has attitude in spades, actually. But like the Tin Man (who cameos), what it really needs is a heart.


Derek McCaw

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