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Robots   C

20th Century Fox / Blue Sky Studios

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG
Directors: Chris Wedge, Carlos Saldanha
Writers: David Lindsay-Abaire, Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Halle Berry, Robin Williams, Greg Kinnear, Mel Brooks, Amanda Bynes, Drew Carey, Jim Broadbent, Jennifer Coolidge.

Review by Rob Vaux

Futurama did it better.

Robots gets its hands on the perfect high concept, and then -- like so many other films before it -- never thinks to add a decent story. It's a breathtaking tour guide to a fantastic world populated entirely by robots; its gorgeous art design and funky characters make every frame a joy. Why, then, do the filmmakers have to run it through a paint-by-numbers plot full of standard family-film tropes and mealy-mouthed "believe in yourself" homilies? There's creativity to spare here. Couldn't they have saved a little for something other than the scenery?

Admittedly, the scenery itself is Maximum Sexy. The sheer visual invention on display staggers the mind, based on a very simple concept spun out into infinite permutations. The aim is to mechanize the mundane, rendering everyday sights in a combination of riveted steel and Rube Goldberg interconnectedness. The result is astonishing: from the small town where our hero begins his journey to the bustling metropolis where his path ultimately leads, every robotified corner feels both delightful and unique.

Nor are directors Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha content with showing us the same sight twice. From windup pigeons to a massive freeway based on slingshots and giant marbles, every scene holds a new surprise. This is especially true of the robots themselves, rendered in myriad different forms that give each one a distinct individuality. Some of Robot's best gags involve normal items and events reimagined in this new context, including a build-it-yourself baby ("over 12 hours of labor") and a security bot that removes interlopers with a giant junkyard magnet. As a showcase for the potential of CGI, Robots ranks with Finding Nemo as one of the very best in the medium.

It's disheartening then, with all that effort up on-screen, to see the quieter elements struggle for traction. The robots look so great and the actors who voice them are all big-league talent, yet they ultimately embody one-dimensional personalities that offer nothing beyond their cast-iron visages. Ewan McGregor gives voice to Rodney Copperbottom, a young robot inventor who journeys to Robot City to meet his idol Bigweld (Mel Brooks), "the greatest robot in the world." When he arrives, however, he finds the icon's business being run by a sinister corporate bot (Greg Kinnear) who plans to render all older robots obsolete by forcing them to pay for expensive mass-produced upgrades. What follows is a depressingly familiar routine whereby Rodney gathers a group of ragtag misfits to his side, sets out to restore Bigweld's legacy, and shows those stuffed steel shirts that quirky individualism still matters.

It's always ironic to see behemoth corporations like Fox decry the evils of behemoth corporations, but that's par for the course these days. What's more distressing is how bland and uninteresting the characters are once you get past their looks. The long list of stars were presumably brought onboard to give the parts some juice, but they have very little to work with. Instead, Robots slides them into tired old routines (those weary of Robin Williams' shtick should stay far away), or just ignores them, focusing far more attention on its admittedly slick sight gags. At times, the film plays like a collection of loosely defined sketches rather than an actual script, and though the actors are all game, none stand out (save Paul Giamatti, whose nasty little gatekeeper owns every scene he's in).

Moreover, while the film's imagination seems infinite, parts of it still struggle to leave a lasting impression. Indifferent one-liners elicit fading smiles rather than sharp laughter, and while Robot City always has a new surprise, the off-the-shelf thrills of chase scenes and last-minute rescues eventually wear out their welcome. It all creates a searing cognitive dissonance, wherein what the film could be hopelessly outpaces what it is. The best option is to simply treat the images as abstract spectacle; you likely won't see better this year. Any other challenges, however, are ultimately left unanswered. Kids will lap Robots up, like any film so conceived, and as a cinematic babysitter, it's no worse than most. But for such a visually peerless film to have so little to talk about is profoundly disappointing. Like the chrome chassis its villains so ruthlessly hawk, there's a lot of empty space underneath that sparkling shine.

Review published 03.10.2005.

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