Thursday, March 17, 2005

Robots / **½ (PG)

With the voices of:
Rodney Copperbottom: Ewan McGregor
Fender: Robin Williams
Phineas T. Ratchet: Greg Kinnear
Big Weld: Mel Brooks
Cappy: Halle Berry
Crank Casey: Drew Carey
Piper Pinwheeler: Amanda Bynes
Herb Copperbottom: Stanley Tucci
Tim the Gate Guard: Paul Giamatti
Madame Gasket: Jim Broadbent
Mrs. Copperbottom: Dianne Wiest
Aunt Fanny: Jennifer Coolidge

Twentieth Century Fox presents a film directed by Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha. Written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. Based on the story by Jim McClain and Ron Mita. Running time: 91 minutes. Rated PG (for some brief language and suggestive humor).

The new theatrical release Robots topped off a weekend for me of watching movies with lofty goals that all fell just slightly shy of working. The goal of Robots seems to be to match the imagination and ingenuity of recent CGI animation, a bar set high by the films of Pixar Animation Studios (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles). It comes close in the imagination and ingenuity departments by taking its audience into a futuristic world populated entirely by robots, but seems to suffer from its very efforts to be clever and eye catching. I fear it is the story’s heart that gets lost in the shuffle.

The story is basic enough. Rodney (Ewan McGregor, the Star Wars prequels) is a young inventor who dreams of a better life for himself than the dishwasher job his father, Herb Copperbottom (Stanley Tucci, The Terminal), has worked so hard at all of his life for little gain. Inspired by the work of this robot world’s most famous and successful entrepreneur, Big Weld (Mel Brooks, Spaceballs), Rodney decides to leave his small town life for a shot at the big time in Robot City. When he arrives in Robot City he quickly finds reality never quite plays out the way dreams do.

Big Weld has not been seen by any robot in quite some time, and his company has been taken over by the money and power grubbing Phineas T. Ratchet (Greg Kinnear, Stuck On You). Ratchet, in collusion with his mother Madame Gasket (Jim Broadbent, Moulin Rouge), has set out to get rid of all outmoded robot models in order to make millions selling exclusively a line of over-priced upgrades. So then it becomes Rodney vs. Ratchet’s empire with only a ragtag team of misfit outmodes to help him.

The primary and most misfit misfit on Rodney’s side is a con-bot named Fender. Robin Williams brings his usual frenetic delivery to Fender’s voice, which affects Fender’s physicality into something resembling a hyperactive jackhammer. At first Fender acts as the custodian of the harsh realities and frenzied pace of the big city to Rodney, trying to con him into buying photos of himself he doesn’t want as soon as he steps of his train and eventually stealing his foot after he has been tossed out of Big Weld’s factory. But when Rodney reinstalls Fender’s decapitated head without even using the proper replacement parts, he becomes the champion of outmodes everywhere in Robot City.

Oh. And Halle Barry (Catwoman) voices a fembot on Ratchet’s executive board who empathizes with Rodney’s cause and eventually becomes a sort of romantic interest for him. If that crediting of Barry’s role seems abrupt and an afterthought of sorts, it only reflects the temper of the film itself. The universe in which Robots exists is a stunning one, teeming with color and character, rushing by at a pace slightly faster than a typical music video played at ten times its normal speed. There is wonderful detail in both the foreground and background of every shot of this film, but the only way to catch most of it would be through multiple viewings, as in seven or eight rather than two or three.

The jokes come at just as fast a pace as the action here, and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell (Parenthood) try to skewer every pop culture reference they can think of. No one, from Darth Vader to Brittany Spears, is safe from the wrath of these robots; and just how do these ’bots know so much about our current human culture anyway?

Directors Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha should be commended for their ability to evoke such a complete fantasy world, it is a shame the audience doesn’t get more of a chance to soak it all in. In Wedge’s and Blue Sky Animation’s first feature Ice Age there was the grounding presence of the human baby to slow things down and put the whole story of its prehistoric animals into perspective. In Robots everyone seems to be fighting so desperately for their own survival no one takes the time to appreciate just what they are struggling for.

Is it possible for a film to be too clever for its own good? The jokes and action in Robots are certainly clever, creating some great laughs and spectacular sequences, such as the giant dominoes set piece that reveals the Wizard of Oz-esque recluse Big Weld. But the filmmakers concentrate so hard on delivering their zingers and keeping the action moving, the characters and story get lost in the cyclone of sights and sounds.

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