Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan


Posted by CinemaPsycho on March 16, 2005

Directed by Chris Wedge/co-directed by Carlos Saldanha/written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel/starring the voices of Ewan McGregor, Halle Berry, Greg Kinnear, Mel Brooks, Drew Carey, Robin Williams/20th Century Fox – Blue Sky Animation

A young robot ventures into the big city to make his name as an inventor and winds up leading a literal industrial revolution.

Robots is one of those computer-animated movies that don’t really look like cartoons and don’t really look like live-action. It takes place in a kind of bizarre retro-futuristic netherworld that may be the future, may be a parallel universe, who knows. They make no attempt to explain anything, and the kids in the audience probably don’t care.

But for those of us over the age of 12, we can’t help but wonder about these things. I’m still trying to get all this straight as I write this. The movie is set in a world full of robots. There are no humans. New robots are made by the old robots. So who made the original robots? Am I the only one who thinks about this stuff?

And the robots don’t really act like robots – they act like humans. So why bother to make them robots in the first place? Just because no one’s done it yet? I’ve never understood this need to anthropomorphize everything – animals, toys, cars, pencils, vibrators, what have you. I can only imagine what’s next – “Genitals! Coming in 2008!” I just don’t understand what the point is. Why make a movie about, say, sharks just to have them act as much like humans as possible? Why can’t sharks act like sharks, and robots act like robots? Wouldn’t that be more interesting? Sure, let them speak English and everything, but give them appropriate behavior. If I wanted to watch robots try to act human, I’d tune into America’s Next Top Model. (Just kidding, UPN – don’t cancel Veronica!)

In spite of all this, Robots is actually a pretty decent little movie. I wouldn’t say it’s a great piece of work, but for the kind of movie it is, it’s not bad. It’s the kind of animated movie that never really “wows” you, never makes you laugh hard, but it’s just visually impressive enough and just clever enough that you kind of enjoy it. At the very least, you can take your kids (or in my case, my nephew) to it and not regret sitting through it.

The whole thing starts with the “birth” of Rodney Copperbottom (McGregor), a likable young robot with a knack for inventing other robots. (Would that make him a God?) Actually, it starts with an extended clip from Ice Age 2: The Quickening or whatever they’re going to call it, but that’s neither here nor there. We watch Rodney grow up the way a human boy would – each year, he gets new body parts to fit his progressing age. It sorta makes sense in context (unlike that show My Life as a Teenage Robot, where I never understood why the robot had to be a teenager in the first place). The jokes here could have been cutesy and fallen flat, but they’re actually quite charming. We’re off to a good start.

Rodney lives in a small town, so wouldn’t you know it he decides to take off for the big city when he comes of age, because gosh darn it, that’s what enterprising young robots do. He wants to work for Bigweld (Brooks), a businessman (businessbot?) who owns like the biggest robot company in the world. But instead of being a Donald Trump-like rich asshole, Bigweld is a swell guy who has his own TV show and invites smart robots to come and pitch him ideas (which I presume he doesn’t steal the copyrights for).

When Rodney gets to the city, surprisingly he doesn’t encounter robot crack whores and a corrupt robot police force. He does discover that Bigweld Industries has been taken over by Ratchet (Kinnear), a yuppie-bot dickhead whose plans include the extermination of all “outmoded” robots. He intends to stop making replacement parts, forcing all robots in need of service to “upgrade” to an expensive new chassis. If you can’t afford the upgrade, you get tossed in the quite literal scrap heap.

Rodney is barred from admittance to Bigweld (by a hilariously high-voiced creature that looks like that hand puppet from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, voiced by Paul Giamatti) and, instead of giving up and going home, dejected and depressed, sticks around Robot City and makes some new friends. They include Fender (Williams), a wisecracking con artist, his little sister Piper (voiced by former jailbait star Amanda Bynes) and Crank (Carey), who doesn’t really have any distinguishing characteristics other than the voice of Drew Carey. They all stay at the flophouse of Aunt Fanny (Jennifer Coolidge), whose name pretty much gives away the whole joke. Thankfully, they don’t wear it out too much.

Eventually our hero discovers that Bigweld is missing, as well as a knack for repairing robots (would this make him a doctor?). Ratchet gets wind of this and is none too thrilled – his evil plan pretty much hinges on all of the robots naturally falling apart, after all. With the help of Cappy (Berry, in what’s sadly her best performance since winning that Oscar), a disillusioned Ratchet employee and requisite love interest, Rodney leads his friends to fight back against the system and revolt against the ruling class. This leads to the kidnapping of Patty Hearst and…whoops, wrong movie.

Seriously though, there’s a real anti-corporate vibe going on here, which is odd coming from people who work for Rupert Murdoch. It occurred to me during the movie that I was actually watching a Disney allegory here, with Bigweld the beloved, benevolent founder a la Walt Disney, and Ratchet the ruthless corporate tyrant along the lines of Michael Eisner. Rodney could easily stand in for the animators, who were probably inspired to get into their line of work by the wonders of classic Disney animation (Walt had a TV show too), only to find themselves confronted with the cold, modern Disney that is more concerned with the bottom line than in creating great animated films (Walt made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia, while Eisner made The Emperor’s New Groove and Treasure Planet). I don’t know if that was the intention, but you can definitely read the movie that way. Nice one, guys.

It’s also interesting that Bigweld Industries seems to run everything in the film’s universe. There doesn’t seem to be any form of government, justice system or even law enforcement. Big business runs rampant, and the people are pretty much left on their own to survive as best they can. This may have been an intentional political statement on the filmmakers’ part, or I might just be reading into things a little too deeply. But considering how much work it takes to make one of these movies, it’s kinda difficult to believe that anything winds up in them by accident. At least they gave us adults something to ponder.

Anyway, what’s surprising about Robots is just how effortlessly charming it all seems, almost in spite of itself at times. After suffering through the cringe-worthy Shark Tale, with its “modern sensibility” and its endless fish puns, it’s nice to see a kids’ movie that (mostly) sticks to being a rollicking adventure without catering too much to the MTV attention span. Williams gets to do his usual manic riffing, but it’s almost always in character and without being insufferable (I could’ve done without the Britney Spears reference though). I only counted a few instances where I felt the movie might become dated sooner than it should (including the use of recent pop songs to punctuate some of the scenes). But these are only occasional lapses, and Robots never becomes obnoxious about them. There’s no sense of “we’re making robot puns – see how clever we are?”

In fact, Robots is mostly sweet and well intentioned, even if its message ultimately sounds like a bumper sticker. I would’ve liked to hear more personality in some of the voice acting – sometimes I think they cast these all-star animated films at random, based on who the biggest name they can get happens to be. Mostly the voices are fine, but when you have comedy legend Mel Brooks at your disposal (Mel, it’s been too long) and you don’t give him anything funny to say or do, it’s kind of a wasted opportunity. His character isn’t necessarily supposed to be a laugh riot, but then why cast Brooks in the part? It’s a little odd when someone like Giamatti (great actor, but not necessarily known for bringing the funny) makes more of an impression in a few brief minutes of screen time than Brooks does.

Still, despite my gripes, Robots is a difficult movie to dislike. It may not be the absolute pinnacle of achievement in recent animation, but it’s a damn sight more enjoyable than a lot of what’s out there. It’s a decent afternoon for the kids, and adults won’t wish they could swallow their tongue rather than sit through the whole thing. That’s something.

*** 3/16/05

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