Emru Townsend · March 11, 2005 | We're never told who built the world and cybernetic inhabitants of Robots, but if I had to guess I'd say his last name was Fleischer. How else to explain a world where even the lampposts and fire hydrants are as alive and chatty as its citizens?

Well, there is another theory: Robots co-director Chris Wedge and the rest of the crew over at Blue Sky Studios are fans of old-school animation—the kind created by people with names like Fleischer, Avery and Clampett. There's also a certain love of old movies, too. Just look at the plot: Rodney Copperbottom, a bright kid from a struggling but loving family, makes his way to Robot City. Having grown up idolizing Bigweld—a rotund cross between Walt Disney and Thomas Edison—he's decided to bring his own invention, the Wonderbot, to the Bigweld company and make the most of his skills as an inventor and mechanical wizard. His timing couldn't be worse, as Bigweld has largely been taken over by the scheming Phineas T. Ratchet, who is planning to stop supplying robots with spare parts, forcing them to buy costly upgrades—or be melted down, a fate he thinks all "outmodes" deserve.

Given the modern tendency toward mythic quests, overblown high concepts and larger-than-life canvases, it's actually kind of refreshing to go back to a basic starry-eyed-kid-outwits-big-city-industrialist story. Rodney's got no driving neuroses, no father issues, no real troubles; he's just a nice kid with a dream. It's charmingly old-fashioned, and in many ways so is the rest of the movie. Rodney and most of the regular-guy robots look like the metal and plastic pals we've seen in movies, TV shows and comics from the '40s through to the '70s, but the most up-to-date 'bots are the ones that are sleekly Art Deco, evoking the mid-1920s.

Blue Sky Studios/20th Century Fox, 2005
Directed by Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha
90 minutes

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But that old-fashioned aspect hurts Robots as much as helps it. Between the Rube Goldberg-esque Robot City transit system (where is "Powerhouse" when you need it?) and an amusing chase/grapple/figure-skating sequence in the first fifteen or twenty minutes, it soon becomes apparent that a certain Looney Tunes logic is a factor in the film. That's not a bad thing (and it sets us up for a climactic battle that is more about gags than action or any real peril), except that Looney Tunes require superior timing and structure, even during the non-loony moments—something that is especially important in a feature-length endeavour. (An excellent example is Disney's Aladdin, which Disney itself couldn't match with The Emperor's New Groove and Hercules—even though the latter came from the same directors.) The situations and gags in Robots look good on paper, but the comedic and dramatic timing don't carry them well; as a result, the movie never quite jells.

I also have to bring up a long-standing pet peeve, namely the need for celebrity casting. Sometimes, a celebrity is the right person for a certain role: Ewan McGregor is largely unrecognizable as Rodney, but he nails his youthful naïveté and determination; Halle Berry doesn't do a particularly distinctive job with the Bigweld exec Cappy, but the animators give her an under-the-surface sexiness that works well with her voice; Greg Kinnear does smarmy so well he's a natural for Ratchet; and Mel Brooks is just hammy enough to give Bigweld buckets of old-fashioned charm. But Drew Carey, Carson Daly, Jamie Kennedy and Jay Leno (among others) were wholly unnecessary. Most of them provide cameos, which is pointless given that their voices aren't that distinct when separated from their famous faces. Their names are trotted out in press materials to add what I suppose is a veneer of legitimacy—the logic being that DreamWorks does it with the Shrek movies, and look at how well they did.

The big draw is supposed to be Robin Williams, returning to feature animation after a twelve-year hiatus. His performance, however, is a mixed bag. Williams's Fender doesn't cut loose like the Genie in Aladdin, which is fine. We're never really sure why Fender is a kook, and if he were as manic as the Genie he'd be off-putting. When Fender first appears, Williams's voice leans toward Groucho Marx, which fits the character: he's fast-talking, absurd, and scamming. When he stays on that track, Fender is great. When Williams leans more toward his usual riffing, Fender loses his spark.

If there's one thing I felt that truly stood out in Robots, it was that at times it somehow felt hand-drawn. In fact, there was one shot where, in my mind's eye, I could see the storyboard for it, drawn in the style of Batman: The Animated Series. (And, as it turned out, Batman Beyond and Justice League storyboard artist Adam van Wyk did storyboards for Robots.) The last time I had that sensation was while watching The Incredibles, which felt at times like stop-motion. It's an encouraging sign that companies other than Pixar are creating CGI films that carry that indefinable traditional-animation feeling, but it's disappointing that the rest of Robots wasn't as revelatory.

What's Good: An aesthetically pleasing, visually dense film that could have veered into eye-candy territory, but didn't; a surprising but interesting hand-drawn quality.

What's Bad: If only the story's execution were as engaging as the visuals.
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