It is interesting to note that the commercials currently running for ROBOTS fail to take advantage of the best features of the film. Sure, we hear the celebrity voices and see the characters they voice to their schtick, with Robin Williams, in point of fact, it’s pretty much all schtick, but we don’t get a sense of how superbly the makers of this CGI animation flick imbue their robotic heroes and villains with real souls. Evils souls sometimes, but never mind. It adds a refreshing note of snarkiness to the proceedings.
Brought to us by the same team that concocter ICE AGE a few years back, ROBOTS is even better, set in a parallel, carefully thought out universe where a diverse population of robots inhabit a society not all that different from ours. As we learn in the opening sequences, they make babies, too, only they use wrenches and lug nuts to do it instead of, well, never mind.
That’s how Rodney Copperbottom (voiced by Ewan McGregor and sporting the same solid jaw line) is born to his proud parents. Theirs is a loving, but not wealthy family, which results in a running gag about what sort of hand-me-downs Rodney is forced to endure as he grows up. Rodney looks up to his dad and to Mr. Bigweld (Mel Brooks), the most important robot of all and purveyor of all the parts necessary to keep the population running, no matter what their budget. Rodney dreams of moving to the big city where Bigweld Industries is located and joining its team of inventors. His first effort is Wonderbot, sort of a cross between Tinkerbell and a percolator, with emotional issues and a sense of purpose that can lead to greatness and pratfalls. Invention in hand, he sets out to make his dreams come true, braving disappointment, an odd assortment of new friends, and the perils of being magnetized. There’s also that dastardly scheme by robot yuppie from hell with mother issues, Ratchet (Greg Kinnear) to wrench Bigweld Industries from its founder, and change it into something that caters only to the rich while turning the rest of the population into imminent fodder for the scrap heap.
The writing is a sharp as McGregor’s jawline. Witty, smart, and neither written down nor schmutzed up in order to appeal to a particular demographic. Instead, the writers have given themselves over to pure sense of fun. Okay, there are a few fart jokes for the kiddies. Still, the rest of it is so well-crafted that the manic improvisation that Williams contributes blends seamlessly with the scripted banter. The characters are just as sharp, mostly. The motley crew that takes Rodney under its collective wing has a broad range of eccentricities that are endearing without being cloying. If Halle Berry’s Cappy, the shapely, if metallic, Bigweld executive that sees something promising in the small town kid with the weird invention, doesn’t have much to say beyond lending a helping hand, there’s Bigweld himself, a perfect sphere of childlike ebullience.
There’s also a dazzling sense of not just imagination, but also of a painstaking ingenuity that uses CGI with a wicked sense of playfulness. Rodney’s trip on the cross town express with new pal, the quick-talking, slow-witted Fender (Williams), is a Rube Goldberg interlude that could stand alone as a short feature, with all its spinning bits, unexpected detours, and outrageous defiance of gravity but not, oddly, logic. As for the domino relay that involves a gazillion dominoes tumbling one after another into a veritable ocean of dizzying wave action, there’s no way to get that on screen except with CGI. The visuals are exquisite, with the clunky streamlined look of the early 30s as the backdrop, and the bake-o-lite colors of the robots themselves, vibrant turquoises, yellows, reds, and greens contrasting with the sleek and soulless silver of the upgraded baddies of the piece.
There’s no getting around that ROBOTS delivers a pointed message about the evils of capitalism run amok, but it delivers it as gently as it does effectively. This is not a didactic screed. It’s just as happy to bombard the audience with a whole passel of small jabs, such as a poster for Rock’em-Sock’em IV, Red versus Blue. Not to mention the pure whimsy of the Buns of Steel bakery. This is a great time at the movies, funny, intelligent, and wildly inventive.