Though it's amazing and magical to look at, Judge Bill Gibron warns you about these mechanical mediocrities—they fully intend to violate the first law of robotics with their beautiful, but routine, animated dud.
Repair for adventure.
After releasing the relatively disappointing Home on the Range in the summer of 2004, Disney did something that many thought inconceivable. Citing a growing wish on the part of audiences for computer-generated fare (the obvious success of Pixar being pointed to), the House of Mouse, the company that created the concept of an animated feature motion picture, was pulling the plug on 2D, or what is often referred to as traditional, hand-drawn animation. With the desire for digital bits getting the blame, many pointed to the massively underachieving string of titles release by Disney—like Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, and Brother Bear—as the real reason Uncle Walt's world was finally going gigabite.
Yet it also could have been an acknowledgement by one of the industry titans that, after 80-plus years in the animation game, the tide was changing. Thanks to the undeniably huge profits for films like Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, and Shrek, audiences seem to want the 3-D experience more than the art or imagination of the pen and ink projects. But just because a PC is utilized to realize a vision doesn't make the movie valuable, or even viable. Take Fox's Robots, for example. This is one amazing-looking movie. Yet when shed of its groundbreaking visuals, it's worse than some of Disney's decidedly dreary flat-imagery flops. It just goes to prove that the interjection of technology doesn't always result in energy and enjoyment.
Facts of the Case
Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor, Star Wars, Episode 1) wants to be an inventor, just like his hero Bigweld (Mel Brooks, Blazing Saddles), owner of Bigweld Industries. As he grows up, he longs to leave the Podunk town he lives in with his kind, hard-working parents. Eventually making it to Robot City, Rodney learns that Bigweld has been unseated by his right-hand man, Ratchet (Greg Kinnear, As Good As It Gets). This corporate crook, along with his horrid, subterranean smelter-running mother Madame Gasket (Jim Broadbent, Topsy-Turvy), hope to rid the metropolis of all old-fashioned automatons.
With his mechanical skill and good heart, Rodney becomes the savior of the other residents of Robot City, repairing them the best he knows how. He realizes that things will never be right until he finds Bigweld, and with the help of friends Fender (Robin Williams, One Hour Photo), Aunt Fanny (Jennifer Coolidge, Best in Show), and corporate insider Cappy (Halle Berry, Monster's Ball), he sets out to discover the secret behind the CEO's sudden "disappearance," and Ratchet's part in the ploy.
There is nothing worse in animation than imagination without soul. Put another way, all the effervescent eye candy in the world can't make up for a lousy script, even one that is beautifully realized. Robots, the latest CGI experiment from those Pixar pretenders at Fox is a startling film to look at. Imagine an entire empire of 1950s toys come to life, all clanking and clunking in a world equally mechanized, and you start to get the idea of how impressive this movie looks. Visually, the images are ripe with texture and detail. We can see the paint chipping off the metal hulls and sample the dents and dings that festoon their chasses. With its Rube Goldberg flights of fancy and desire to fully flesh out this fantasy world, the creative team at Blue Sky Studios does deliver a breathtakingly gorgeous view. But once these tin men (and women) open their yaps to speak, the movie turns trite and irritating.
That is because Robots may be the first animated film to follow the live-action Hollywood blockbuster style of cinema—get your big-budget set pieces together first, worry about insignificant stuff like characterization and narrative logic later. Like a greedy group of boys with an ultimate set of CGI tinker toys, the animators here have gone overboard to make Robot City one baffling array of inventiveness. We get outrageous mass transit concepts, interesting urban housing, and lots of gearhead gluttony.
But it's all in service of a citizenry that's as dull as rusted stainless. Instead of having a hero to root for, a love interest to entice us, or a comedic sidekick to belly laugh over, Robots gives us pre-modeled merchandise, colorful yet antiseptic figurines ready and waiting to be realized in plastic and plastered all over local Wal-Marts come Christmas time.
True, you can point to Pixar and argue that the same aesthetic applies there as well. Heck, even that big green money-grubber named Shrek is guilty of massive movie product tie-in-itis (Shrek Shampoo? Huh?). But the difference between those examples and Robots is readily apparent the minute the movie begins. Rodney Copperbottom's childhood may be a series of hand-me-downs and public humiliations, but that's all we know about our soon-to-be savior. Similarly, when Rodney runs into Fender, a rapid-fire robot with a million or more one-liners, we instantly understand it's nothing more than Robin Williams revisiting Aladdin-land.
Instead of carving out its own original reality, Robots just wants to borrow, brandish, and then beg off. Instead of using all their attention span on art designs or computing power, someone should have sat down and worked on the story. Rendering the script as many times as the mid-movie trip through Robot City's surreal landscape would have done this movie an entire brave new world of good.
As it stands, Robots is one of the rare movies that barely almost kinda, sorta ekes by on its looks alone. One can't help but be thrilled at the vistas we visit. William Joyce, responsible for the equally endearing cylindrical style of Disney's Rolie Polie Olie, understands the inherent logic in pretend precepts. He makes his robots seem real, providing them with a lot of detail, heft, and substance. But his work is constantly undermined by the dialogue. Robots makes the mistake that topicality is timeless, and consistently references pop culture (Britney Spears, etc) in jokes that seem old before they even appear onscreen.
Similarly, the indirect stunt casting of the characters harms the humor. With Drew Carey, Harland Williams, and Sir Robin rattling off the ad-libs, it's almost impossible for the film to stay focused. Each is in it for their own ends, not for the betterment of the overall film. And since our heroes and heroines are fleshed out by the far more plaintive voices of Ewan McGregor, Halle Berry, and Amanda Bynes, the result is a real lack of recognizable personality.
Then there is the issue of the message. Robots can't find a subtle way to sell its soft soap, so it turns its main moral, "anyone can shine, no matter what they're made of," into a constant catchphrase. Like the overused idea of "The Force" in the Star Wars universe, there is a crazy, cult-like appeal to this feel-good mantra that makes Robots far too saccharine to be easily digested. In reality, the better missive for the movie is buried in a throwaway bit.
When Ratchet announces the new line of mandatory upgrades, the incredibly clever promotion campaign ("Why be you, when you can be new?") is unveiled. This was the perfect place for Robots to find its foundation. Instead of some prissy pep talk about being all you can be, the creators could have tapped into a perverted post-millennial media ideal that brainwashes the public over fashion and physicality. Instead of all the pointless slapstick moments, some real satire could have been created out of ads that make the old and broken-down 'bots feel bad about themselves. One imagines the commercials as well as the mechanical supermodels employed to prove to the populace that tin thin is in.
Alas, Robots wants to reach out to the baby and the bathwater crowd, those for whom the rapid movement of primary color enhanced shapes has nothing to do with artistic merit or cinematic quality and everything to do with the stimulation of underdeveloped brain cells. This is superficiality at its most stifling, a missed opportunity that makes those in love with the notion of robots angry, thanks to the underdeveloped nature of the narrative. Here's an interesting experiment to try if and when this movie makes it to your home theater: turn off the sound. Don't listen to the dopey dialogue, just make up your own story in your head as the swirl of sensational images fills the frame. Though it may not be any more sensible or substantive, you just might enjoy the Robots experience a little more. For such an intended epic, this is one minor movie.
From a purely technical standpoint, Fox delivers a solid DVD package, plump with extras and lots of visual and sonic splendor. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is colorful and detailed, with electric moments of mind-bending vibrancy in the picture. Though far from flawless (there are a couple of instances where the crispness seems off, and the edges a bit fuzzy) this is still an excellent, straight-from-the-Cineplex quality transfer. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital Stereo 5.1 Surround and 5.1 DTS are awesome. This is a very directional film, with lots of elements flying around and across the screen. As a result, the speakers step up to the channel-changing challenge and deliver a near-big-screen quality aural recreation.
Fox usually puts together a tight digital package, and Robots is no exception. Most of it could be considered kiddie stuff (Xbox demos, lame remote control based games, Ice Age 2 teaser), but there is some nice substance here as well. Not in the deleted scenes, though. They are not completed (and often contain less than impressive drawings and pencil tests) nor are they mandatory to understanding the film—for better or worse. The "You Can Shine No Matter What You're Made Of" character inspiration featurette gives us a chance to understand William Joyce and his works. As he describes how he came up with the robots in the movie, we really get a glimpse into his crafty creative process. A Blue Man Group featurette shows how the oddball band was brought in to add its idiosyncratic touch to the soundtrack, while the Making-Of documentary follows director Chris Wedge through what he often refers to as a "labor of love." We also get a nice menu-based feature highlighting all the main characters. When you click on one of them, you are taken to a screen with options, including interviews with the actors who brought them to life.
The best bonus features here are the commentary tracks and the Aunt Fanny animated short. "Tour of Booty" is pretty broad in its humor (the title should be a tip off), but the CGI is so stunning that we're capable of forgiving most—but not all—of its shortcomings. Wedge and Joyce then provide a point-by-point discussion of the film, and their alternative narrative track is a treat. Painfully critical (the must call out the incomplete script two dozen times during their conversation) and proud of parts that they think succeed even without solid writing, the pair pour over this film with a fine-toothed critical comb, delivering the down-to-earth analysis that the rest of the PR-based extras avoid. Equally entertaining is the Blue Sky Studios track. Featuring several members of the production staff, this is the nuts-and-bolts discussion of the project. While it can get technically dense and a tad bit "geeky," these individuals really love the work they did on the film, and it really does carry over to their comments.
So CGI is the savior, right? Disney doesn't have to draw another damn thing, Warner Brothers can wash the Looney Tunes down the toilet and Paramount can pass on any future pen and ink entries, correct? Well, if Robots is the result of this ideal, then the answer is an obvious "No." But that doesn't mean that what's on the screen is substandard. In reality, Robots is one of the best-looking duds to come along in the nearly worn-out world of kidvid. Wee ones will definitely wet themselves over the abundance of optical bonbons (you know kids and their love of cinematic sweets), and those with a penchant for films without plausible plots may also enjoy the rigid attention to detail. So, maybe it's unfair to decry this film for failing to meet the ultra-high level of accomplishment that a company like Pixar places in its motion pictures. But for all its bells and whistles, and gears and cogs, this is a movie that is too mechanical in its motives and mannerisms. Robot City is a swell place to visit, but taking up permanent residence requires a knack for narrative normalcy that this movie just can't live up to. Too bad. For all its flaws, this is an imaginative, well-intended work.
Robots is guilty of grandiosity without a legitimate logical script to stand on and is sentenced to 30 days in the smoldering coke pits of Madame Gasket's blast furnace for a little "refining." Fox is found not guilty of DVD depletion, even if the extras tend toward the underage crowd. Court dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Chris Wedge and Producer William Joyce
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