Despite a script with more second-hand parts than many of its title characters, “Robots” inspires sufficient wonderment to impress as spectacle and generates enough guffaws to score with every aud segment except the most toon-averse teens. Fox and Blue Sky Studios follow up their 2002 smash “Ice Age” with an even more vividly precise and inventively realized 3-D CGI package that should easily match, and likely surpass, previous pic’s $176 million domestic gross. (Day-and-date release of Imax version certainly will boost B.O. numbers.) Overseas and homevid biz will be nothing short of turbocharged.
Working from concepts and character designs he initially hatched with William Joyce, author of popular children’s books who gets producer and production designer credits, helmer Chris Wedge leads an army of CGI wizards in the remarkably detailed rendering of a planet inhabited entirely by mechanical creatures.
In the world according to “Robots,” immense cityscapes appear co-designed by Fritz Lang and Rube Goldberg, incorporating everything from art deco to futurism, ’30 kitchen appliances to ’50s auto tailfins. Multitudes of mechanicals are balkanized according to class, divisions are maintained in multilevel urban environments and public-transportation systems resemble super-sized pinball machines.
Trouble is, the narrative that drives the colorful characters through this eye-popping wonderland is something short of piping-hot fresh. To be sure, the scenario, credited to playwright David Lindsay-Abaire and vet scripters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, is serviceable enough as excuse to leap from one visually dazzling scene to the next. But even youngsters will experience a distracting sense of deja vu as familiar plot conflicts and stock characterizations loom large in this brave new world. Overall feeling of “been there, heard that” is reinforced by Robin Williams’ typically motor-mouth antics while voicing a key supporting robot.
Rodney Copperbottom (voiced by Ewan McGregor), a callow young ‘bot from the boondocks of Rivet Town, journeys to the vast metropolis of Robot City to find work as an inventor at Bigweld Industries. Unfortunately, Rodney arrives in Robot City just as Ratchet (Greg Kinnear), a corporate mecha-shark, replaces beloved old Bigweld (Mel Brooks) as company chief.
To maximize profits, Ratchet institutes a program to cease manufacturing replacement parts, forcing worn-out robots to buy overpriced upgrade bodies. (New Bigweld ad slogan: “Why be you when you can be new?”) Unfortunately, this means aging ‘bots who can’t afford upgrades — like Rodney’s father, Herb Copperbottom (Stanley Tucci), a dishwasher (yes, a real dishwasher) back in Rivet Town — ultimately will be consigned to scrap heaps. But that’s perfectly OK with Ratchet: His malevolent old mother, Madame Gasket (Jim Broadbent), runs an underground “chop shop” where obsolete and/or unrepairable robots are ripped apart and melted down.
Naturally, unassuming Rodney winds up leading a revolution against Ratchet’s chicanery. In this, he receives help from such unlikely allies as Cappy (Halle Berry), a sleek yet scrappy Bigweld exec who rebuffs Ratchet’s unwanted advances; Piper (Amanda Bynes), a peppy girl-bot with pigtails shaped like shower heads; Fender (Williams), Piper’s older brother, a hyperkinetic hustler who’s constantly scrounging to find replacement parts for himself and others; Aunt Fanny (Jennifer Coolidge), a motherly ‘bot with an immense bottom; and silent Diesel, whose search for a voice box cues a forceful cameo voicing by James Earl Jones.
(Similar cameo vocals are provided by Terry Bradshaw, Dan Hedaya, Jay Leno, Al Roker, Stephen Tobolowsky and Harland Williams.)
It’s meant as high praise to say that, very early in “Robots,” the extraordinary starts to seem perfectly ordinary. That is, Wedge and his artist-technicians do such a wondrous job of creating and sustaining the illusion of a matter-of-factly amazing world populated with meticulously detailed robots (complete with chipped paint, unsightly dents and other signs of wear and tear) that it’s astonishingly easy for aud to quickly accept everything onscreen as, if not reality, then a persuasive facsimile thereof. Just as “The Incredibles” struck many as a rousingly exciting action-comedy that just happened to be an animated feature, “Robots” often achieves the dramatic and emotional impact of the very best live-action sci-fi adventures.
Vocal perfs are first-rate across the board, from McGregor’s engaging earnestness as Rodney (whose head resembles a cross between an outboard motor and a faux-retro toaster) to Brooks’ robust bombast as the roly-poly Bigweld. And even though much of Williams’ shtick sounds recycled from his vocals for “FernGully: The Last Rainforest” and Disney’s “Aladdin” franchise, he’s undeniably delightful as he cuts loose with riffs on Japanese anime, pop-tart musicvideos and, best of all, the glorious “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Climactic clash between good and evil feels more chaotic than comedic, but laughs come frequently even during frenetic folderol. Pic overall abounds with clever in-jokey references to other movies — note the guest appearance by a character from somewhere over the rainbow — and other instances of sophisticated wit.
On the other hand, pic also includes ample dose of humor aimed at moppet level. Indeed, even though “Robots” is about mechanical creatures, you can rest assured filmmakers find ways to include fart jokes.