Robots (U)

Directed by Chris Wedge by Carlos Saldanha
Written by Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel, Jim McClain and Ron Mita
On general release from 18th March 2005

Reviewed by Tim Kopp

This diverting and technically impressive animation with an all-star cast lacks an engaging story and character development to have lasting value beyond its theatrical run. ** out of five

A country entirely populated by robots, the present. Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor) is assembled and raised by parents to believe in himself and to make his ambitions reality. He is encouraged further when he sees Bigweld, the master inventor and leader of a major corporation, on television inviting new inventors to join him. As a result, Rodney leaves his hometown for the capital Robot City with his new invention, but is turned away by the corporation’s new leader Ratchet. It transpires that Ratchet and his mother, Madame Gasket, have forced Bigweld out and taken over the corporation. Intending to sell their own expensive upgrades to the population, they plan to take all spare parts needed by the robot citizens to live and function off the market. Unable to afford these upgrades, many of them become "outmodes," helpless against city sweepers that seize and dump them at the Chop Shop. Rodney, his new friend Fender and his gang of outmodes decide to rebel against Madame Gasket and reinstate Bigweld as the leader of the corporation.

Impressively staged but empty at its heart, Robots demonstrates why, Pixar’s efforts aside, modern feature film animation has reached an impasse. The story and script of director Chris Wedge (Ice Age) and Blue Sky Studios’ new picture are credited to no less than five writers, yet the script is bafflingly underdeveloped. Characterisation is so elementary that it makes audience identification and sympathy with Rodney, and the supporting characters, near impossible. The story in general lacks clarity when, for instance, it is never made clear quite how Madame Gasket and Ratchet managed to remove Bigweld in the first place. Likewise, Robots arrives at particular plot points without really building up to, and preparing the audience, for new developments at the outset: the film suggests that Rodney and former corporate employer-turned rebel Cappy have fallen in love in the short time they have been together, and expects the audience to buy that solely on the fact that they have just been told so. It speaks volumes about the writers’ and the director’s disinterest in this story thread (and the plot altogether) that the film abandons the love theme again almost instantaneously, except for a nod in the final scene.

The comedy, meanwhile, is rather uneven: for every inspired visual gag (the barber shop in the opening sequence) there is an all too knowingly employed quotation of a film classic which animation nowadays just can’t seem to do without (in Robots’ case, a Darth Vader impersonation and nods to The Wizard of Oz and Singin’ in the Rain). It should be noted to the film’s credit that it doesn’t resort to post-modernist references as excessively as the Dreamworks competition of Shrek and Shark Tale, where the attempts at being funny and smart felt increasingly desperate (one only needs to look at the Edith Head pastiche in Pixar’s The Incredibles to see how genuinely witty and funny comedy of allusion can be). And yet, in spite of its limitations, Robots works better than it should: although Wedge clearly uses some of his set pieces like Rodney and Fender’s trip to Robot City to fill the void left by the script, the action is well-paced and directed with skill and energy.

Robots is the type of Hollywood film that even while you are aware of how mediocre it altogether is, it still works well enough for the audience to be caught up in its spectacle. Occasionally, and in sharp contrast to the lacklustre drive of story and characterisation, there are moments of inspiration such as when Bigweld reveals himself to Rodney and Cappy in a tidal wave of dominos. The voice acting, too, reflects the film’s hit and miss qualities: for the most part, the cast is generally solid, with the antics of Robin Williams striking the only false note while Ewan McGregor (Rodney), Jim Broadbent (Madame Gasket) and Paul Giamatti (security guard) make the most of their respective parts. Robots entertains just about enough for an afternoon but it’s hard to envisage anyone except the most undemanding kids wanting to return to it.