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Film review

Tough to warm up to

Robots' thin plot and tired gags do little to stimulate human interest in characters far removed from our everyday experience.

By STEVE PERSALL
Published March 10, 2005


photo
[Twentieth Century Fox]
Upon his arrival at Robot City, Rodney Copperbotton, left (voice of Ewan McGregor), is entranced by the rapid-fire antics of Fender (voice of Robin Williams) in the animated film Robots.

Fox Animation Studios deeply, desperately craves a place alongside Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks in the front ranks of modern animation. The strain shows in every frame of Robots, as it did in the studio's first animated hit, Ice Age. Neither movie is as funny, exciting and heartwarming as creator Chris Wedge believes, or as close to the gold standards as moviegoers deserve.

Robots is a drawing-board idea that never quite takes off. An interesting world populated by robots is drawn, yet we never truly relate to the population. Human viewers can connect to toys, fish, fairy tales and comic book heroes because they're staples of our culture. Artificial intelligence is still just a bit too fantastic to represent our everyday lives.

Wedge and three screenwriters try to make that emotional connection, introducing us to Rodney Copperbottom (voice of Ewan McGregor), a tin man with a heart and a knack for inventing new robots. He comes from a hand-me-down experience with a dishwasher dad (Stanley Tucci) and devoted robot mom (Dianne Wiest). Rodney has the prerequisite dream for an animated hero: He wants to meet the illustrious inventor Big Weld (Mel Brooks) and sell his latest invention, a dishwashing dervish.

So far, so sentimental. Having established an okay quest, Wedge begins piling on the motion, noise, puns and pop culture references. And that's just Rodney's own cowardly lion, Bender, voiced by Robin Williams, a sure sign that the script needed punching up. Williams isn't a joke doctor; he's a joke paramedic. Everything he does is stat. At times Robots feels as if scenes were created just because Williams wouldn't be quiet in the recording booth.

Every quest needs an obstacle, and this one is a takeover of Big Weld's corporation by Phineas T. Ratchet (Greg Kinnear), an oily upstart ending Big Weld's generous production of replacement parts in favor of more expensive upgrades, thereby making good robots like Rodney and Bender obsolete. So, we have a children's movie based on utilitarian microeconomics. See the movie, read the textbook.

Everything presented as plot is merely an excuse to reach the next action sequence or musical number (and what dull compositions, except for the top 40 samples). Rodney and Bender's expressway to Robot City is a clever bit of Rube Goldberg invention, and a climactic battle between Ratchet's upgraded army and Rodney's patchwork troops satisfies the boom factor. But name one other quality expected from this movie and there's likely too much or too little of it on display.

You want star voices? Nineteen celebrities spout Wedge's artificial intelligence, spreading the dialogue so thin that most could be played by nobodies and it wouldn't make a difference. Thank goodness that a few - Williams, Brooks, Kinnear - have such distinctive voices; otherwise I might think Wedge is pulling the old bait and switch.

You want jokes? Robots has them out the wazoo, so frantically delivered that few have time to register. Airplane! looks pedestrian in comparison. The jokes that click are often so bland or predictable that missing the others is a minor relief. Maybe one in four gags works, with Williams' relentlessly recycled riffs padding that failure rate.

You want the next wave of cuddly toy buddies? Robots' metallic cast of characters certainly isn't plush-doll material. Legos, maybe. Or just strip labels off soup cans, dab a little paint and make your own bedtime buddy. Keep a tetanus shot on the night stand.

Or perhaps you simply want whatever you consider entertaining. Can't blame you there. But Robots is another example - like Ice Age, Shark Tale and the second half of The Incredibles - of computer geeks getting too excited about having an audience and a practically blank check. The backgrounds are beautiful, the motion is fluid (too much, in fact, for robots that should clank) and the action sequences have a theme-ride rush that's easy to enjoy.

Go. Have fun. Then go home, plug Toy Story or Finding Nemo into the DVD player and see what Robots is missing.

Robots

Grade: C

Directors: Chris Wedge, Carlos Saldanha

Cast: Voices of Ewan McGregor, Halle Berry, Robin Williams, Greg Kinnear, Mel Brooks, Amanda Bynes, Drew Carey, Jim Broadbent, Jennifer Coolidge

Screenplay: David Lindsay-Abaire, Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel

Rating: PG: brief rude language, suggestive material

Running time: 91 min.

[Last modified March 9, 2005, 09:39:05]


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