Animated feature dazzles audience with all the gew-gaws money can buy
By Devin D. O'Leary
Directed by Chris Wedge, Carlos Saldanha
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Robin Williams, Halle Berry
At this point, everyone in the animation biz (whether working in the 2-D or 3-D realm) is toiling away in the towering shadow of Pixar. With an unbroken string of box office hits (Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles) and yet another Academy Award on the shelf (the company's second Best Animated Feature Oscar in a row for The Incredibles), Pixar is the unqualified king of cartoons.
That hasn't stopped others from doing their damnedest to usurp the crown. DreamWorks had some pretty big success with the Shrek films. And 20th Century Fox put its best foot forward with Ice Age. Still, for every Shrek 2 that succeeds, there's a Titan A.E., a Sinbad: The Legend of the Seven Seas and a Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmeron that do not.
Fox isn't giving up the fight, however, charging ahead with their follow-up to Ice Age (in lieu of the still-wrapping Ice Age 2), the CGI-animated Robots.
Robots, to put it plainly, is going to be a big, fat chrome-plated hit, further bolstering the animation industry and putting even more pressure on Pixar to succeed now that it's bursting free of Disney's greedy grasp.
Robots is a simple little morality tale about a world inhabited entirely by mechanical beings. Born (or rather, manufactured) into this world is a young robot named Rodney. Despite his humble roots (rivets?), Rodney (voiced by Ewan McGregor) dreams of becoming a great inventor like his idol, Big Weld (Mel Brooks). When Rodney makes his first big trip from humble little Rivetown to gigantic Robot City, he's in for a big shock, however.
Seems that kindly old Big Weld has been booted as head of Robot City's biggest manufacturing company and replaced by evil corporate slickster Phineas T. Ratchet (Greg Kinnear). Ratchet has come up with an evil plan to stop manufacturing replacement parts, forcing robots to buy expensive, shiny upgrades. Those who can't afford them will be forced to rust in peace, providing plenty of precious scrap metal for Robot City's smelting plants.
Soon enough, Rodney hooks up with a group of rusty “outmodes” led by robotic con man Fender (Robin Williams) and finds his destiny jury-rigging broken robots. The film's message decrying corporate greed, rampant consumerism and the need to conform to society's view of “perfection” is laid out in a fairly clear-cut manner, but it's still a refreshing moral to come out of corporate America (particularly Fox, a company that helped produce "The Swan").
The script (by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel of Splash, City Slickers and A League of Their Own) is unswervingly predictable with clear-cut heroes, sneering villains and comic relief sidekicks. What it lacks in originality, however, it more than makes up for in visual delights. I hate to admit it but, on a purely eye-candy level, Robots out-incredibles The Incredibles. The film is positively bursting with whiz-bang inventiveness. The small details, right down to the flaking paint on our outmoded robots, are gorgeous to behold. The big details, like Robot City's kinetic marble maze transportation system, are marvels of clever design and execution.
Fox is still married to the idea of celebrity voices, which is my other major nit to pick here. In addition to all the ones named above, Halle Berry, Drew Carey, Amanda Bynes, Jim Broadbent, Jennifer Coolidge, Carson Daly, Paul Giamatti, D.L. Hughley, Jamie Kennedy, Conan O'Brien, Stanley Tucci, Dianne Weist and Jay Leno all contribute voices. I'd call that overkill, particularly when none of these celebrities is apparent until the final credits roll. They all do decent jobs (even Robin Williams seems more tolerable than usual doing his tired old "look who I'm imitating now" shtick). But The Incredibles didn't make $260 million based on Craig T. Nelson's voice. It's all about script and style, people.
Plot-wise Robots is nothing new. Still, I guarantee audiences of all ages will be captivated by the sheer audacity, beauty and style of the animation. From the looks of it, Fox has manufactured itself a CGI smash.
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