Not to be confused with the similarly named movie I, Robot in which Will Smith discriminates against automatons, Robots is Fox Animation Studios’ latest stab at the world of CGI animated kids’ entertainment. Their last film Ice Age, was a modest if forgettable success and Robots fares just about as well. The movie is packed with big name voice talent and beautifully rendered characters, but like Ice Age, never quite manages the emotional connection Pixar brings to the table with their movies.
On the other hand, maybe Robots doesn’t have to. Pixar’s films are more than children’s’ movies, they’re telling real, adult stories. Age is irrelevant when watching The Incredibles or Finding Nemo. Fox seems content to cater straight to the under ten set, and in doing so perhaps they’ve found a niche. If they do that well, then there’s nothing wrong with that.
Robots is the story of Rodney Copperbottom, a robot living in a world comprised entirely of robots. Not just any robots, most of the film’s droid designs look like they’ve just fallen out of an episode of Flash Gordon. Full of rivets and joints and swivels, they look like fantastic robot toys time-warped in from the fifties and brought to animated life. I’m sure the first sketches Fox came up with had toy marketing execs slobbering.
Rodney is the son of a dishwasher, literally. His father is a dishwasher with legs. Rodney wants more out of life than an after-market soap dispenser installed in his chest cavity and so journeys to uber-metropolis Robot City. There he hopes to work for the world’s most important robot inventor. But things are not as they seem, and the film turns into a typical little guy and idealism versus evil, massive, profit-driven corporate empire tale. I’m sure you can figure out who wins.
What makes the movie are the characters, an entertaining mish-mash of talking toasters and decrepit coffee pots voiced by big name stars like Drew Carey, Halle Berry, Mel Brooks, and Ewan McGregor. Carey’s voice seems a little out of place, but the rest meld nicely into their characters. That’s actually a rarity in an animated film so packed with celebrity voices. Often, big names are brought in just for the attention, but in this case the actors giving these metal muppets voice actually have a handle on what it takes. Robots also marks a return to voiceover work by Robin Williams, who stole the show in Disney’s Aladdin as Genie. He’s not nearly so effervescent here, limited by the constraints of a less exuberant script and by the prison of his character’s limited metal body. Still, Williams is easily the best thing about Robots, his comedic side trips into madness responsible for a good portion of the film’s laughs. Williams’ weird riffing is a welcome relief to some of the more heavily scripted comedic bits; fart and fanny jokes run rampant since even the lamest writer knows there’s nothing kids find funnier than poopy.
Really that’s the major problem with Robots, it’s simply not as creative as it ought to be. A city filled with nothing but metal, grease, and artificial life presents oodles of fantastical opportunities that this group of animators never explores. There’s one thrilling sequence in which our hero Rodney rides on a form of public transportation that bears a strong resemblance to a game of pinball, but otherwise the robot world is disappointingly similar to ours. The differences boil down to little more than the sort of gags you might find on any old episode of “The Flintstones”, only not nearly as funny.
Robots is part of a new breed of CGI movie that’s more of a cartoon than an animated film. It’s a well meaning enough picture, energetic and eager to please. But it shares more in common with an average episode of “Scooby Doo” than it does with Monster’s Inc.. It is only the novelty of CGI animating, which has apparently not yet worn off, that propels it to an event worthy level in the public consciousness. So maybe it doesn’t connect on that deeper level Pixar’s movie do, it does work well enough on a child’s level. The animation is nice, though not quite up to the sheen of movies like The Incredibles or Shrek. Maybe colorful is a better description than beautiful. There’s color everywhere in the film, but after an initial introduction to the robots’ busy world, it stops making any real impression. Robots is trying, and while it might not always succeed, it doesn’t totally miss either. The wit and intelligence needed to make a movie like this a real classic is not in evidence and that’s not something you can manufacture. It’s harmless, empty, fun; easily watched and bound to provide a great time for kids and a painless one for their parents.