Robots Movie Review

The 1995 release of Pixar's Toy Story forever altered the world of animated cinema. In an instant, decades of Disney-dominated traditional cartoons vanished in a pixilated puff of fairy dust and a new era of almost entirely computer-generated animation began. The ensuing wave of digital films has met with such astonishing box-office success that even such forgettable romps as Chris Wedge's Ice Age have managed to top the earnings charts in their opening weeks.

But things are changing in the animation scene. The freshness of CG has worn away, and audiences are no longer wowed by flashy technology alone. Disney/Pixar's The Incredibles has raised the bar on both animation excellence and story-telling savvy to a level that will be hard to top in coming years. If such early hits as Toy Story or Antz premiered today, it's unlikely they would wow the crowds nearly as much as they did on their initial releases. It's a tough time to be an animated film.

Despite growing audience sophistication, a few studios are continuing to produce high-caliber, surprising CG films. And most surprising of these is Blue Sky Studios, which produced the visually stunning yet inarguably lame Ice Age in 2002. Directors Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha have learned a thing or two in the intervening three years, and their latest effort, Robots, makes enormous strides in both animation quality and storyline over its predecessors, vaulting the Blue Sky animation team into the realm of filmmaking legitimacy.

They key to this film's success is simple: It's a good story. Unlike Ice Age, Robots takes the time to build out its characters as nuanced individuals with their own problems. Protagonist Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor) is the son of (literally) a dishwasher. From the day his parents assembled him, he spent his life wearing hand-me-down parts from his older cousins and dreaming of a day when he might make a difference in the world. Inspired by the promise of a career as an inventor in Robot City, Rodney hones his skills by building various and sundry doohickies from spare parts he finds around the house until he's old enough to strike out on his own and show is inventions to master inventor and industry mogul Big Weld (Mel Brooks).

But life in the big city isn't all it's cracked up to be. Foul things are afoot at Big Weld Industries, and Rodney can barely get his foot in the door before he's jettisoned into the streets like a scrap of tin. Down and out in the slums, Copperbottom encounters a motley band of misfits, including an obsolete bot named Fender (Robin Williams), who's not far from the trash heap himself.

While the rest of the characters are too beaten down by the hardships of city life to fight back, young Rodney's ingenuity and determination inspire his friends to rise up and fight the sinister power that threatens their society and their very lives.

Not far beneath its kid-friendly surface, Robots is a story of society gone awry. Corporate greed has overrun traditional values, and ordinary people find themselves faced with little choice but to continually upgrade themselves with the latest trends or fade into obscurity and obsolescence. Under the marketing slogan "Why be you when you can be new," the wicked powers of advertising are turning hopeful young folk into mindless consuming machines. It's a bleak picture, and it's all too pertinent to our current global predicament.

Against this dark backdrop, Robots builds a fun story of hope and adventure filled with punch dialog and sharp comedic timing. Robin Williams is in typically strong form as the rickety robot Fender, but by no means goes it alone in delivering scene after scene of witty banter.

The real victory of this film, however, is its sheer animation excellence. Wedge and company owe a great deal of their success to the fact that they chose exactly the right subjects to animate. Rather than struggle with the elasticity of the human face, the artists could focus on bringing to life the textures and movements of machines. And they do it phenomenally well. Throughout many scenes, it's easy to forget that you're watching digitized pixels move around on screen, because the details of texture and lighting so convincingly evoke a world of metal in its various forms. The whole film could just as well have been created from tin figures and stop-motion animation. Furthermore, an extraordinarily detailed focus on the physics of the robotic world creates a seemingly endless string of Rube Goldberg-esque effects that are in and of themselves worth the price of admission.

As a pure story of human interest, Robots falls just slightly short of the more personal tale of The Incredibles, though it's certainly superior in its rendering of a believable physical world. In the end, however, it's all about the story, so The Incredibles retains the title in this bout of CG heavyweights. Even so, if you miss out on Robots this year, you're missing out on a lot.

The DVD includes commentary track, deleted scenes, and a number of making-of featurettes.

Where's Beetlejuice?


Robots Rating

" Extraordinary "

Rating: PG, 2005


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