Saturday, March 12, 2005

REVIEW: Robots

For decades, Walt Disney was the only company "allowed" to release animated movies. As the medium's creator, they were viewed as synonymous with their creation, and with such a fusion imbedded in people's mind's the very idea of a "Disney movie" not made BY Disney was, well... wrong, somehow. So it is now with Pixar and 3D Computer Animated films: This is seen as "the Pixar genre," and no matter how many "Shrek" sequels roll by "the Pixar genre" it shall remain for a long time. The question is, somewhat, complicated by the fact that none of the non-Pixar entries in the genre have been even close to equalling Pixar's product, but there you have it. Basically, ever film of this style will be compared to Pixar's work, and come up looking short about 99% of the time. Yes, even "Shrek."

So now comes "Robots," made in earnest and with a lot of obvious effort behind it, and it's almost sad to have to report that it's... just not Pixar, and more than that just not very good. A lot of good ideas and visuals are in it, and it's obvious a good deal of the people working on it were working their bums off, but there's just not much of a movie here. It's story is too light, it's characters are all concept but internally hollow. It's predictable, it's unmemorable... it just doesn't fit together right. It's a step-down for Chris Wedge, who's previous entry "Ice Age" was a small wonder of family storytelling.

Set in an entirely-mechanized world populated by entirely mechanized beings, (all of which look like they were much more fun to design than they are to watch,) "Robots" follows Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor,) a teenaged robot who's dream since the day his parents assembled him has been to leave tiny Rivet Town for sprawling Robot City to show his inventing skills to Big Weld (Mel Brooks,) the billionaire robot-industrialist who apparently manufactures and maintains the entire world of the film and all of it's inhabitants. Rodney discovers on-arrival that Big Weld's company has been usurped by the unctuous Ratchet (Greg Kinear,) a profit-oriented business-bot who's tilting the company away from the manufacture of endless spare-parts for all models of robots to the exclusive selling of upgrades. (slogan: "Why be you when you can be NEW!?") That this will force outmoded bots who can't afford or don't desire upgrades to be scrapped in the underground recycling furance that serves as a Robot City version of Hell is all part of the plan, masterminded by Ratchet's mother Madame Gasket, who's more or less a kind of Robot Devil (that this would, I guess, make Ratchet the Robot Antichrist is not really explored.) Teamed up with misfit rabble-rouser Fender (Robin Williams,) Rodney becomes a street-level Messiah for his ability to repair the parts-less, rapidly-deteriorating population.

It's all meant for fun and a solid message of be-yourself-ness, (and there seems to be a hint of rival-studio-satire with Ratchet as Michael Eisner to Big Weld's Walt Disney,) but it all just sort of hangs there. For all his backstory and oh-so-human-except-not pathos (his parents are poor and his very body is all a succession of family hand me downs) Rodney just isn't a very interesting character, and while there's the outline of a Hero's Journey going on it's hard to care. Ratchet and Madame Gasket are weak villains, largely undefined and only intermitently menacing: For all the effort, the film's central plot can't shake the issue that almost all of it's gags were done better as half-hour episodes of "Futurama" several years ago. Roles given to name stars, like Halle Berry as a love interest for Rodney, are largely lifeless while most of the really fun, interesting characters (like Brooks as Big Weld) don't get enough screentime. Only Robin Williams comes off looking good, surprisingly investing Fender with an edge that is delightfully not just his "Genie" routine warmed over.

If you've got kids, you're probably going to see this no matter what sooner or later. The best I can offer you in terms of hope is that Williams is funny, some of the "chase" sequences are interestingly designed and that the film is short. Beyond that, "Robots" just doesn't have much to offer. Pity.