**/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras C+
screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire and Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel
directed by Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha
by Walter Chaw Surprisingly, perhaps shockingly, Robots isn't terrible, even though it's a product of the same chowderheads behind Ice Age and even though it's your basic ramshackle kid's flick/self-esteem trope (complete with closing musical number) upon which the Shrek franchise has founded a scatological empire. What works in its favour is its attention to the little details of a world that, without explanation, is completely populated by robots that employ other robots in specialized, superfluous functions. What works against it is the lack of a firm grip on Robin Williams's bridle (resulting in a bunch of gay jokes that weren't funny when Milton Berle was doing them half a century ago), a weak reliance on pop cultural in-jokes that are already dated (Britney Spears? C'mon--why not Ricky Martin?), and the usual roster of fart and diarrhea jokes, which aren't exactly a calling card for immortality. The appropriately-named Blue Sky animation studio promises a lot with its giant mainframes, but it can't deliver anything beyond a brilliant opening sequence, a Tom Waits song (like Shrek 2), and then a lot of the same passionless, heartless idiotspeak that passes for children's fare nowadays.
Rodney (voiced by Ewan McGregor) is the requisite dreamer, a bot made out of spare parts and hand-me-downs that seeks empowerment and affirmation through the kind auspices of Willy Wonkite tech-kingpin Big Weld (Mel Brooks), only to find that his hero's been supplanted in Rivet City by business-school grad Ratchet (Greg Kinnear). Consigned to a ghetto populated mainly by drag queen Fender (Williams), his sister Piper (Amanda Bynes), and their junk-in-the-trunk'd Aunt Fanny (Jennifer Coolidge, now a good five years past her sell-by date), Rodney begins repairing old robots to the consternation of Big Business and, with the help of comely Cappy (Halle Berry) and the sort of anthropomorphic .gifs that used to typify desperate Disney pictures, seeks to bring self-worth back to the underprivileged. Again like Shrek (and Beauty and the Beast, come to think of it), though Robots talks the talk, when it comes time to walk the walk, the ugly ones are still lonesome, the fat ones find romance but only with each other, the struggling dad gets to stop being a blue-collar guy and start being a popular musician, and Rodney ends up paired with hot Cappy instead of tepid Piper.
Lots of medium-amusing references to sources as varied as The Wizard of Oz and the "Daisy" death scene from 2001 share time with a few genuinely inventive throwaway moments, such as public restroom logos that are an outlet and a plug and an animal litter sign that sees a magnet attracting Fido's droppings. Rodney's childhood is brilliantly imagined as a some-assembly-required ordeal ("Twelve hours of labour!") in which babies come fully equipped with every parents' dream of a volume control for the squalling. A quick cameo from Darth Vader is sort of funny but the real cameo opportunity of a horde of ugnaughts wrestling over the spare parts in Robots' recycling-plant inferno is squandered.
It's the story of Robots, really: a picture made by artists who have some imagination wrestling with a screenplay (by professional hand-crankers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel) that doesn't have any. When the picture finds itself stripped of momentum and inspiration for the final reel, it resorts to the usual roster of breakneck action in virtual, poorly-contextualized environments designed to wrap things up in a loud bow and to make your kids anxious for the rest of the day. Robots is an impressive technical achievement--as impressive, in fact, as the last impressive technical achievement. But as with any film without much of a centre, it's doomed eventually to the scrap heap of technical achievements past, à la The Black Hole, Tron, Willow, Ice Age, and on and on and on. Originally published: March 11, 2005
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Fox brings the dated Robots to Blu-ray in an appealing 1.85:1, 1080p presentation. A few shots near the beginning of the film raise a red flag for having had edge-enhancement very pointlessly applied to them, but they prove a freak occurrence, and overall this is a status quo transfer for a 3-D animated title. Saturation is impressively controlled considering the poster-paint character palette, though the detailed image falls prey to colour banding now and again. The attendant DTS 5.1 audio (Fox has not provided a lossless option despite listing one on the jacket) honours a thumping, dizzyingly discrete mix but, being lossy, doesn't sound dramatically better than the DTS track of the DVD. Some but not all of the extras are ported over from that 2005 platter--the disc, for instance, drops director Chris Wedge's commentary but retains the group yakker, which seems to feature just about every member of the Blue Sky team except Wedge. The animators' yak-track is not uninteresting, however; they seem an unambitious bunch when they admit to giving up on a nice idea for the picture's title credit, only to redeem themselves by pointing out that this is the first CGI cartoon with a production design composed almost entirely of reflective surfaces. Wedge does materialize in optional commentary over three crudely-animated deleted scenes and observes that what we're seeing is the result of a production getting prematurely greenlit. (Paraphrasing his words, the film had to be spread out on an operating table at some point so they could see which appendages were useless.) The only other video-based supplement is, oddly, a BD exclusive: "The Voices of Robots" (7 mins., SD) contains recording-booth soundbites from vocalizers Ewan McGregor, Greg Kinnear, et al. Halle Berry is referred to therein as "Academy Award Winner," while fellow Oscar anointee Robin Williams is not. Originally published: April 12, 2011.