In 1985, ‘Young Sherlock Holmes’ featured the first completely computer-generated character: a stained glass knight that leaped from its window to engage in a duel. It was a fantastic accomplishment from the wizards at Industrial Light and Magic, and opened the floodgates for computer animation in motion pictures.
Now, two decades later, comes ‘Robots,’ the newest completely computer-generated effort from Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha, the minds behind 2002’s ‘Ice Age.’ It is an astonishing achievement in computer animation, on par with top-tier photo-realistic effects but with a stylistic flair all its own. If you like your eye candy then read no further and go see ‘Robots’ now. Lucky for us, there’s much more to ‘Robots’ than good looks.
The plot is generic enough: Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor) heads from his small-town home into the bustle of Robot City to meet his idol, Bigweld (Mel Brooks). When he arrives, he finds that Bigweld has been supplanted by Ratchet (Greg Kinnear), who stops production of Bigweld’s cheap replacement parts in favor of more expensive upgrades. Ratchet wants robots to pay more for their repairs so that he can make more money, and he’s willing to turn any robot that can’t afford repairs into scrap. Rodney refuses to stand for this and, with the help of Fender (Robin Williams), a group of misfit robots, and Bigweld loyalist Cappy (Halle Berry), he defeats the evil Ratchet and Madame Gasket (Jim Broadbent). Order is restored, Rodney’s ailing father and all of Robot City are saved, and everyone lives happily ever after. Though the basics of the plot could fit any number of movies, it is really nothing more than a framework for the wit and warmth that ‘Robots’ lavishes on its audience.
The wit is on display in every frame, in the big picture and in tiny details. This is certainly a movie that rewards the eagle-eyed, as there is no shortage of gags hidden in the background that not only serve as welcome winks at the adult audience, but also flesh out the world of Robot City brilliantly. The dialogue is equally grand in places, funny for the grown-ups but never leaving kid-friendly territory and ranging from Williams’ trademark madcap mania to Drew Carey’s typical subtle self-deprecation. Visual puns also abound, including robots dancing the robot. Sure, it may look silly on paper, but it is perfect on film.
As for warmth, ‘Robots’ has a heart big enough for a roomful of tin men. McGregor can’t help but exude charm with his voice, so it’s no surprise that his Rodney is a sympathetic character from the start. His relationships with the other robots, most notably Fender, are entirely genuine and turn what could have been lifeless ciphers into real (artificial) people. This isn’t to say that character development abounds; quite the opposite, in fact, but what has been included serves the movie well.
Watching the credits is interesting since the movie is packed with celebrity voices. Some cameos, like the one provided by James Earl Jones, are instantly recognizable and really fun, but others manage to slip by completely unnoticed. This raises the question of why the filmmakers would pay big bucks to these mystery voices (Al Roker? Jay Leno? Terry Bradshaw?) when they could have used virtually anyone. Since none of the performances stick out as gratuitous, it doesn’t seem necessary to push for an answer.
Also questionable was the choice to have the plot revolve around a fairly thin allegory for mass murder. Ratchet lays out his plan very clearly in the standard-issue Villain Monologue: Those who can’t afford upgrades will be killed, since he is tired of this underclass polluting his city. Surely the kids which this movie targets won’t get the Holocaust parallels, and since the good guy triumphs maybe it’s all supposed to be OK, but the notion was still just a too creepy.
In contrast, the movie can be too obvious in its message that ‘You can shine no matter what you’re made of.’ It’s OK for children’s movies to have a strong ethical center, but to beat the audience with the Morality Stick is condescending to kids and adults alike.
In the end, however, minor quibbles about casting or plotting can’t take away from the success that ‘Robots’ achieves.
‘Robots’ is currently in theaters.