In college I had a friend who loved to talk about movies, and he had a pet theory that the Star Wars trilogy (mercifully, there was only a trilogy then) showed what the future would look like if technology had remained forever analog. The characters in Robots made me think back to that friend and his pontifications, because they and their world don’t resemble the real-world (non-adorable, non-sentient, non-wisecracking) robots and advanced technology of 2005; they seem to spring from the candy-colored, space-age visions of the “Jetsons” era. Before going to see the movie, I caught a couple of minutes of a promo in which the production designer, Bill Joyce, talked about taking inspiration from old machines found in second-hand stores, junkyards, and even his own kitchen, and it can be fun just looking at the characters and guessing where they come from: This one looks like a train whistle, that one like an electric mixer — hey, is that the mask from Phantom of the Paradise?
What may also be fun, or, depending on your temperament, frustrating, about the world of this movie is that everything in it is robotic, from the pigeons that surround the little old lady robot on the bench (she winds them up rather than feeding them), to the toilets, pay phones, and mailboxes. (Why are there toilets, pay phones, and mailboxes in a world with no humans? And, if there are no humans, where did the robots come from? Well, if you’re determined to ask questions like that, you’re in the wrong theater.) Anything and everything is potentially sentient, and it’s likely to break into comic shtick rehashed from one of your favorite movies at any moment. The movie is written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, the guys behind Ron Howard’s Splash and Parenthood and every movie Billy Crystal made in the ’90s, so naturally the script is half go-for-broke comedy and half warm, good-natured fluff about following your dreams and undying familial love. What surprised me is that I didn’t dislike either half.
The basic story is nothing new: Young Rodney Copperbottom (voiced by Ewan McGregor) has two loving, lower-middle class parents (his father is literally a dishwasher) and lives in small, provincial Rivet Town but dreams of bigger things. He wants to be a great inventor like his hero, Bigweld (Mel Brooks), whose mottos are, “See a need; fill a need,” and, “You can shine no matter what you’re made of,” so he sets off for Robot City, which resembles one of George Lucas’ all-CGI alien metropoli and has a public transportation system that’s like a pinball machine designed by Rube Goldberg. There he meets up with Robin Williams (his character’s name is Fender, but let’s not kid ourselves—in his comic performances, Williams is never anyone but Williams, no matter how many dozens of impressions he tosses in), who becomes his sidekick and provides the personality Rodney so sorely lacks. I’m usually no great fan of Williams’ over-antic neediness, and this is possibly his most manic performance to date, but Rodney needs him, and so does this movie. His effrontery is a tonic alongside all Rodney’s aching earnestness, and many of his bits here are jokes I enjoyed the first time, when they came from such diverse talents as Bugs Bunny, the Marx Brothers, and Divine.
Any coming-of-age story requires that our hero face some harsh realities, so it’s no surprise when Rodney finds that Bigweld is MIA, and the smarmy, brain-dead Phineas T. Ratchet (Greg Kinnear) has taken over Bigweld Industries, with much behind-the-scenes maneuvering from his mother, Madame Gasket (Jim Broadbent), who’s written like Angela Landsbury’s Mrs. Iselin in the original Manchurian Candidate (minus the incest, of course) and looks like a metallic mating of Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty and Roz from Monsters, Inc.
Ratchet’s new business model is summed up in his slogan, “Why be you when you can be new?” — he’s doing away with the production of spare parts in favor of expensive “upgrades” that enhance robots by eliminating their pesky idiosyncrasies and turning them into sleek, shiny conformists. A glimpse of their new ad campaign excited me—could this kiddie movie about talking robots actually be taking potshots at Madison Avenue’s you’re-not-good-enough mind games? Well, yes, but only for about 30 seconds. Ganz and Mandel skip their opportunity for cultural critique so they can move on to the jokes about farting and a (robot) woman with a big (metal) ass—a heartening celebration of physical diversity. Rodney joins Fender’s gang of rusty “scroungers” and becomes a working-class hero when the broken-down robots who need spare parts and can’t afford upgrades discover that his tinkering can help them get by. From there, it’s just a matter of moving through the plot mechanics by which Rodney saves the day, installing Bigweld back at the helm of his benevolent monarchy and making Mom and Dad proud as all git-out.
Robots was directed by Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha, the team behind Ice Age, which was reasonably enjoyable despite Ray Romano and Denis Leary’s tired spins on their familiar personas. Part of what makes this movie more fun is that Wedge and Saldanha are now more in control of their voice talent. Only the irrepressible Williams and Brooks are instantly recognizable; the other actors avoid showboating—almost too much. McGregor is subdued, and Drew Carey, who voices the aptly named Crank, strangely appears to be channeling Norm Macdonald. Halle Berry plays Rodney’s love interest, but it seems the filmmakers just wanted her name to help draw an audience; it could be any woman’s voice behind those lovely metal features.
What makes Robots an enjoyable ride is its constant whimsy, the clever visual and verbal puns the animators make, filling every scene with blink-and-you-miss-‘em gags that distract us from the essential squareness of the plot. There’s a great bit where Rodney gets magnetized and metal filings stick to him as though he were one of those fuzzy-face drawing toys, and his one big invention, Wonderbot, is a delightful mix of childlike Id and surprise hero; a blend of R2D2 and Beeker the Muppet. There are also some curios for the parents in the crowd, including the Tom Waits-style dirge “A World Going on Underground” and some very PG-rated humor, including puns about “making babies,” a love nest with automatic Barry White music, and a female robot who tells her girlfriend, “I use the Brazilian wax — it makes me feel like every day’s a fiesta!”
The movie pays playful but sincere homage to Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, and a score of others, but there’s none of pointed pop-culture needling of the Shrek films. It’s disappointing that Robots walks right up to issues of classism and media manipulation and then walks right away; there are a lot of young minds out there being warped by the elitism, acquisitiveness, and body-consciousness that advertising engenders. Still, it’s something of a surprise to see any knock against the media coming from a “family movie,” and especially from one made by a studio like 20th Century Fox. I can only hope there will be a few perceptive tykes out there who’ll tug on a parent’s sleeve as they leave the theater and say, “It’s not nice to tell people there’s something wrong with them and they have to buy your products to fix it, is it, Mommy?”
Call me an optimist.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Robots / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()