- Reviewed by: Mel Valentin
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Current Rating 7/10 | 46 Votes
After an extended prologue that introduces the robotic Copperbottom family of Rivet Town, Herb (voiced by Stanley Tucci), his wife (Diane Wiest) and Rodney (Ewan MacGregor). There are one or two sly jokes in the opening scene (e.g., Herb is a literal dishwasher, the infant Rodney comes inside a box marked “some assembly required,” as an adolescent Rodney is forced to wear his cousin’s hand-me-downs). After the first of several “follow your dream” speeches, Rodney, who, thanks to a weekly television show starring Big Weld (Mel Brooks), the benevolent CEO of a robotics-manufacturing corporation, aspires to be an inventor, flies off to Robot City. Rodney brings along his invention, an all-purpose flying teapot, the obligatory cute "pet" for the smaller children in the audience.
Rodney hopes to gain the ear of Big Weld (Mel Brooks), present his invention to Big Weld, and acquire a position as a company inventor. Before Rodney can reach Big Weld, however, he must overcome an obstacle or two, including his ignorance of big city ways and transportation, an obnoxious jack-in-the-box robotic guard named Tim who controls entry into Big Weld’s corporation. The guard is an obvious nod to a similar character in The Wizard of Oz, as is the repeated image of the Tin Man in the crowds. To take the cinematic or literary references further, Robot City owes a great deal to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, both in the sprawling, gleaming cityscape and in the vision of a two-tier social class. Less notably, and with no apparent connection to the underlying story or references to similarly themed films, Robin Williams is allowed to pay "homage" to Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain. It's a singularly unfunny bit, thankfully ended by the arrival of an automated street sweeper.
Following the standard formula for American children’s films, Robots soon introduces the audience to the film's hissable villains, Ratchet (Greg Kinnear), the acting CEO with a nefarious plan to increase profits while eradicating the older generation of robots, the “outmodeds,” and Ratchet’s mother, Madame Gasket (Jim Broadbent), who runs a lucrative scrap metal shop below ground (her motives for encouraging Ratchet’s plans remain unclear, however). Unceremoniously thrown out of the gleaming corporate headquarters by Ratchet, Rodney must find another way of making his dreams of becoming an inventor working alongside his hero, Big Weld, come true.
Homeless and jobless, Rodney falls in with a band of rickety “outmodeds,” led by the requisite sidekick Fender (Robin Williams). Fender’s name closely resembles Bender, an irascible, misanthropic robot featured in the underseen, underrated, and now defunct, Futurama. Fender’s group of robotic misfits includes the chipper Piper (Amanda Bynes), the chronically depressed Crank (Drew Carey), and Aunt Fanny (Jennifer Coolidge), whose name goes a long way toward describing her most noticeable feature. Some, or at least one of the shiny upgrades, Cappy (Halle Berry) is sympathetic to Rodney’s plight. Before long, or at least before the film ends, the two groups will find themselves battling for the future of their robot society (i.e., corporatism vs. secular humanism).
For Robots, Blue Sky Studios seems to have borrowed heavily from the DreamWorks animation formula, using a committee of writers to develop the generic, “feel-good” script capped by a raucous musical celebration, insert hit-or-miss pop culture references (most of them misses), add unnecessary celebrity voice work (including meaningless cameos), throw in equally undistinguished pop tunes (even Tom Waits lends a hand) and hope that the visual design and action sequences will be sufficient to carry the film to commercial, if not, critical success. For its next feature, Blue Sky Studios should closely study Pixar Animation Studios and their production process. Pixar’s unbroken record of critical and commercial successes speaks for itself, of course. Pixar rigorously develops the main storyline, characters, subplots, and settings first (and the visual design of the film second), and visual design second, a lesson Blue Sky Studios should follow for their next original project (next up is the inevitable sequel to Ice Age).
© Mel Valentin, 14th March, 2005
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