“From the creators of Ice Age” boasts the package. I suppose that’s the best way of setting themselves apart from the more popular (and prolific) Dreamworks and Pixar studios. 20th Century Fox’s second entry into the fray isn’t nearly as witty or entertaining as its prehistoric predecessor, but Robots takes computer animation to the extreme with some of the most intricate and beautifully rendered CG sets and action sequences to date. Unfortunately the magic stops at the animation, resulting in far less riveting characters and plot.
Imagine a world where almost everything is made of metal, right down to the birds and the sidewalk. This is the land of the robots, a place where self-improvement comes in the form of hardware upgrades and procreation is more of a do-it-yourself project than putting together the crib. The robots spend their days much as we do, sleeping, eating and going to work. They even get old like we do, but instead of gray hair they develop broken gears and sockets. When that happens it’s time to order spare parts, but what do you do when the only company in the spare parts business decides to stop production?
Robots is your run-of-the-mill, little guy overthrowing the big bad wolf story. This time the bad guy is Ratchet (Greg Kinnear), the second in command of the company that produces the much needed robot parts. His prejudice against older model robots, known as outmodes, fueled by a creepy Norman Bates complex brought on by his controlling mother Madam Gasket (brilliantly voiced by Jim Broadbent), has Ratchet on a quest to drive all outmodes to utter disrepair. The company’s good spirited, philanthropic founder Bigweld (Mel Brooks), who once encouraged all robots to be everything they could be no matter how ordinary or old they were, has been missing in action leaving the outmodes without a champion.
Enter our hero, one Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor). Rodney loves to create gadgets, but in order to live out his dream of becoming a famous inventor he moves from his Podunk home of Rivet Town to the bustling botropolis of Robot City. There he is quickly befriended by a ragtag bunch of outmodes called the “Rusties”. Headed by the very quirky, falling-apart-at-the-bolts Fender (Robin Williams), they set out with Rodney to find Bigweld, expose Ratchet and save the outmodes from being sent to the scrap furnace.
There are plenty of sight gags and slap stick to amuse younger audiences while the robot puns and clever innuendo offer up something for the older set. Still, despite the movie’s all-star voice cast, Robots sparkles most vividly when the characters aren’t saying anything at all. It’s the depth and sheen of the bizarre and wonderful Robot City that makes the movie shine. Whether it’s a talking fire hydrant, insane mechanical transportation system or the wildest toppling domino setup ever conceived, the animators have envisioned and created a world so intricate and delightful that I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen for fear of missing any minute detail.
It’s really a shame that the characters aren’t as exciting as the world they inhabit. Facial expressions are obscured by the unique mechanical designs and the story never really gives the gang a chance to interact in outstanding ways (no Shrek and Donkey or Buzz and Woody pairings here). While each one is distinctive, none of the robots is particularly memorable and whatever personalities they might have been able to express are stifled by a lack luster script.
There are a couple of strong voice actors in the cast worthy of praise. Robin Williams is his usual clever self as Fender, although he doesn’t come anywhere close to the genius he showed as Genie in Aladdin. Jim Broadbent and Paul Giamatti have juicy roles as Madam Gasket and Tim the Guard respectively, and they squeeze every drop of humor out of every moment. Jennifer Coolidge’s Aunt Fanny and Mel Brooks’ Bigweld also get honorable mention for a job well done. Everyone else in the main cast, particularly Halle Berry and Drew Carey, just don’t fit. Robots falls prey to the all too familiar trap of miscasting voices based on celebrity not character fit, and the results are painfully disappointing.
In the realm of CG movie making, Fox has a lot of catching up to do in the story department, but their animation studio is definitely on top of the heap. I haven’t been so inspired or awed by a movie’s design since Toy Story stunned audiences by thrusting 3-D animation center stage ten years ago. Here’s hoping Fox’s next release, Ice Age 2, fares a little better, keeping the characters center stage, not the effects.
The Robots DVD is packed to the rim with all kinds of high quality extras, providing hours of enjoyable behind the scenes features and in depth looks. The bonus features go a long way in making up for the unsatisfying aspects of the movie. The case strives a more futuristic look, sporting clear plastic instead of the more traditional black. To take things up a notch there’s also a metallic embossed cardboard sleeve. It’s extraneous and will not doubt last about two minutes in most homes with small children, but whatever helps it catch the eye on store shelves I guess.
The movie, not much to my surprise, was originally pitched as a concept, not a script. Perhaps that’s why the animation is so gorgeous and the story so flat. Producers and director got together and said, let’s make a CG movie about robots! To pitch the idea to studios they invented a brief sample of the concept. The result was a minute long short where two robots, one a cranky director and the other a diva actress, play out a scene from the set of a robot version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It’s a cute little bit and after seeing it there’s no wonder why Fox jumped on the bad wagon.
Director Chris Wedge and producer/designer William Joyce come together for one of two commentaries on the disc. They yuk it up throughout, having fun discussing the details and anecdotes surrounded various moments of the movie. Both keep the conversation light but informative, making it an enjoyable listen. By far the more interesting commentary is one made by a group of designers and animators from Blue Sky studios, the artistic company behind the film. Sounding like a bunch of guys gathered around the screen with pizza and soda, they kick back and talk about the joys and pains of creating the animation, all the while tossing in funny observations and comedic offhand comments. If you only have time to listen to one, make it the Blue Sky group, but both commentaries are great examples of how to do talk for 90 minutes without being completely boring.
The voice actors get to put in their two cents, but you have to do a little digging to find it. The bonus section titled “Meet the Bots” is a group of eleven interactive profiles for the movie’s main characters. Each bot has a series of development stills, a 3-D 360 degree turn around view and a brief interview with the actor who does the voice. The downside is having to push a lot of buttons on the remote control to get through all of it. A pleasant feature might have been a “play-all” option.
The Blue Man Group, famous for their innovative instruments and rhythmic style, contributed to Robots’ exciting soundtrack and there’s a brief featurette where they show off some of their stuff and how they collaborated with the film’s composer to give Robot City not just a great look, but a great sound as well. The other featurette, You Can Shine No Matter What You’re Made Of is a fifteen minute collection of talking heads where the creators and crew talk about how the movie came to be, how it was developed and what inspired the characters and designs. It’s an interesting look into how the minds of artists work and what things they turn to for inspiration.
A neat little extra that serves as the answer to the ever-present “trailers for other movies” is the Inside Look. It’s a short behind the scenes feature hosted by John Leguizamo as he tours the Blue Sky studio, hard at work on Ice Age 2. Sure, it’s shameless advertising just like the trailers, but at least it’s interesting, funny and something more than just pure marketing tactic.
As you go down the menu the extras just keep coming. There’s a video game demo for folks with an X-Box system, additional DVD-ROM content and three DVD games that will keep simple minds busy for hours (I finally detached myself after twenty minutes or so). The “all-new” animated short, Aunt Fanny’s Tour of Booty is the only real bonus let down. Coming in just under five minutes, it’s a series of prat falls and gags that will really only appeal to the younger set.
On the whole the Robots DVD is as complete a package as you could ask for without going Peter Jackson. They’ve crammed every line of the disc with information and you could spend hours sifting through all of it.