Rodney Copperbottom (voiced by Ewan McGregor) and Fender (voiced by Robin Williams) in 20th Century Fox's Robots - 2005
Photo Copyright 20th Century F
The question I have for you is this: Has the majority of children's entertainment always been mindless pap, or is it just that I am finally becoming discerning enough to notice it? With a set-up like that, you can probably guess what I thought of this week's CG-extravaganza Robots, but I honestly tried to give it a chance. Granted, I didn't particularly want to go see it and, as we waited through the previews, I wasn't really aching for the movie to start. But once it did, I thought, "Ok. Give it a chance. It might not suck as much as the previews suggest it will." Wrong.
The hero of our story is one Rodney Copperbottom, Esquire. An enterprising young inventor, Rodney longs to make his mark in the world, and where better to do that than in Robot City working for BigWeld, hero and supplier of spare parts for the masses? Unfortunately, Rodney comes from less than superior circumstances, (his father washes dishes, gasp!) so obviously he's going nowhere, right? Wrong! 'Cause it doesn't matter if you're different, everyone can be a winner! So it's off to the city and certain success until (gasp again!) our hero discovers that BigWeld no longer runs the show. Instead, an evil corporate 'bot named Ratchet is in charge at BigWeld Industries and altruism and invention are out the window. Instead, BigWeld will now sell only expensive upgrades - no spare parts allowed. But Ratchet's got an even worse plan a'brewing. Any 'bot that can't afford the upgrade will eventually be rounded up and melted down in Ratchet's mother's chop shop, their parts being refabricated into more upgrades, giving the whole affair an unsettling Soylent Green kind of feel. Not to fear, though, Rodney and his new friends, the Rusties, are going to put things right, deposing Ratchet, restoring BigWeld, and providing affordable spare parts for all! And while they're at it, they're going to fix social security, too!
Robots, with its mind-numbingly simple story and ridiculous screenplay, is unfortunately ill-served by its "actors" as well. Either the characters are completely under-utilized (Ewan MacGregor is barely recognizable in the lead) or they are given free rein to rampage over every scene they're in. (Two words: Robin Williams) Williams, oddly cast as a character in either his late teens or early twenties, runs rampant, delivering rapid fire jokes that mostly fall flat, owing to the fact that the adults in the audience are either asleep or can't hear over the roar of the first-graders around them. Those jokes you can hear deal mostly with farts, an unfortunate biological condition that robots apparently share with humans. There is, in fact, an extraordinary amount of pre-adolescent scatological humor on display in Robots, especially considering the definite mechanical nature of the characters. I guess Twentieth Century Fox knows its audience.
I do have to give it to the filmmakers on one point. Robots is pretty cool to look at. In fact, as I sat in a broiling theater surrounded by sticky little wide-eyed urchins, suffering as the seconds marched interminably by, it occurred to me that an awful lot of people spent what probably amounted to years putting this beautiful claptrap together. The animation is superb, and Robot City has a kind of Rube Goldberg, Mouse-Trap complexity that is pretty fascinating. The trip from station to downtown is by way of a flying ball, rolling through chutes, along tracks, and tipping an endless series of pendulating arms, wheels, and pulleys. It's senseless, but neat nonetheless. If only Robots had been created as a short film and left at that. But no: any half-way interesting digital concept will eventually end up a full-scale feature film for kids, none of them even coming close to the superior writing and animation you find from the king of such films, Pixar. I guess I partly blame Pixar for this - they've made full scale computer animated films popular, but they raise the bar so high, no one else can come close.
The only other positive element in Robots is one totally wasted on its audience. Crammed amid treacly and irritating previews for an endless succession of kiddie movies to come, is the brand-new trailer for Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. It is, in a word (and I know I'm setting myself up for disappointment) thrilling. It's also dark, scary, violent, and completely over the heads of a theater full of eight-year-olds who just want to see the funny robots. It doesn't bode well that George Lucas picked The O.C. and a kiddie flick as the two places to premiere the last of his epic series, but I'll retain my optimism to the last. As for Robots, whatever optimism I might have harbored was relegated to the chop shop long before the credits rolled. Maybe they'll use it to make an upgrade to a better movie. Grade: D+
Robots is rated PG for the aforementioned bizarre scatological humor.
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