In his futuristic novel Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury described a teledrama that crescendoed with a "giant thunderstorm of sound." An impression of plot resolution rung in the ears, "Even though...nothing had really been settled."
In hindsight, the second CGI-animated feature from 20th Century Fox's Blue Sky division strikes me in much the same way. Who needs sleight-of-hand with perfected techniques of aural and visual onslaught? Original plots and engaging characters are expendable if the razzle-dazzle's on hand. Robots walks the fine assembly line between inspiration and safe commercialism.
In this steely world, all of the characters qualify as title characters. Rodney Copperbottom (voice of Ewan McGregor), a young, would-be inventor, makes his rite-of-passage journey from small Rivet Town to sprawling Robot City. Shadowed by decrepit 'bot Fender (Robin Williams), Rodney discovers that his mentor—entrepeneur and kid's show host Big Weld (Mel Brooks)—has been kicked to the curb by his once-loyal company.
The new head of Bigweld Industries, Phineas T. Ratchet (Greg Kinnear), plots to relegate all "out-modes" to the junk heap by ceasing production of spare parts and offering only expensive upgrades to the wealthiest, and therefore fittest, robots. Big Weld's motto ("You can shine no matter what you're made of") gets buffed out for that of Ratchet and his domineering mother (gender-hopping Jim Broadbent): "Why be you when you can be new?"
Even as I watched Robots, my initial enthusiasm slowly slipped into exhaustion, and while I'm skeptical of a movie that's only half as funny and engaging as Matt Groening's similar Futurama, I'm hard-pressed not to recommend Robots as an energetic family-movie distraction. Like Futurama, Robots pursues every iteration of robot gag (many are "freeze-frame jokes"--blink at your peril or pre-order the DVD): ice-grease cones, a "greasy spoon," and a handful of dirty jokes in heap's clothing.
Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha's movie has several distinct selling points: a script by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (though infamous co-writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel do a weld job to append gags), a large and impressive voice cast, a full-to-bursting complement of sight and sound gags, and a production design that's alive with movement, detail, and cultural allusion.
Ironically, each of these fine points has a double-edge. Abaire's provocative allegory fails to ever develop into satire, probably due to a host of poisonous cooks in his kitchen (at least two other screenwriters go uncredited).
Though I guess I enjoyed Halle Berry, Stanley Tucci, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Coolidge, Dan Hedaya, and endless others, the parade of familiar talent (exceptions: the happily unrecognizable Paul Giamatti and the featured percussion of the Blue Man Group) is ultimately distracting, none more so than Williams's talk-show-guest performance.
Emotional arcs are carefully and lifelessly calculated; plotting is...mechanical. The sensory overload fares best earliest, but the towering design—like a child's play-day creation—is made to be toppled in a frenzied, unreasoned finish.
Don't get me started on the already dated pop culture gags ("Hit Me Baby One More Time" got a huge laugh...will it in even five years?). I preferred the longer-term allusions, as to Rube Goldberg and, to my mind, John R. Neill (illustrator of the best-known Oz editions). The heartfelt Tin Man makes a cameo here, but this is Tik-Tok's world all the way.