Archive for Wednesday, March 9, 2005

Robots’ built with second-hand parts

(PG) **

March 9, 2005

Robin Williams' appearance at the Academy Awards really punctuated just how tired the comedian's routine has become.

He delivered the same pop-culture references, the same gaggle of impressions, the same manic asides that he's been milking for decades. It was dated and unfunny, especially when compared to host Chris Rock's superior material.

In "Robots," Williams portrays a character not too far removed from his Blue Genie in "Aladdin" ... or himself. His frenzied antics are meant to spice up the animated movie's simple story. Yet he mainly clutters things up. For every amusing line that emanates from the screenplay, there is one apparently improvised by the comic that calls more attention to ROBIN WILLIAMS than to the actual plot.

It's no surprise why animation house Blue Sky Studios desired someone with Williams' energy. Compared to rival projects from Pixar or even Disney, "Robots" is rather thin and safe. But the tale is good-natured and watchable, even when buried under layers of Williams' shtick.

"You can shine no matter what you're made of," Rodney Copperbottom (voiced by Ewan McGregor) is told by his working-class parents.

The wide-eyed resident of quaint Rivet Town - who like every other
individual in the film is a robot - wants to prove this sentiment to his family, so he heads off to Robot City. There he hopes to sell his inventions to Big Weld (Mel Brooks), the altruistic entrepreneur who
runs the main robotics industry.

During the journey, Rodney uncovers a plot by corporate goon Ratchet (Greg Kinnear) to send the city's outmoded citizens to the "chop shop" if they can't afford the full-body upgrades sold by his company. ("Why be you if you can be new?" becomes the firm's slogan.) Together with his homeless friend Fender (Williams), Rodney attempts to stop this capitalistic ploy before all his buddies are melted down for parts.

Co-directors Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha ("Ice Age") opt for an
old-fashioned kids movie, where everything is spelled out in shades
of black and white. It's got plenty of potty references to keep the
10-year-olds giggling, and an occasional double-entendre to keep
adults awake. What makes the movie engaging is its visual design.

Beginning with the first scene in which the Copperbottoms await the
delivery of their new baby -- 12 hours of labor actually means the assembly time -- the picture establishes it's going for a distinct look. It's not a futuristic "A.I." world so much as a nostalgic throwback, where the robots look like windup toys come to life. A little rusty, a little rickety.

That expands somewhat when Rodney hits the metropolis, which provides a far sleeker veneer (and a more seedy underbelly). This is typified by the film's action centerpiece, in which Rodney and Fender take a trip on the city's mass transportation system. The Crosstown Express shuttles, flings, rolls, submerges and jettisons the pair from one bizarre device to another, as if they were the marble in a Mouse Trap board game. The lengthy sequence adds nothing to the story but is enjoyable on a purely kinetic level.

Although "Robots" stands toe to toe with Pixar's "The Incredibles" or
"Finding Nemo" in terms of visuals, it still comes up short overall. That's because Pixar's projects stress content over imagery. And the content in this flick is just too familiar to warrant much attention -- even with Williams force-feeding hyper parodies of Gene Kelly and Britney Spears into the mix.

For a movie that supposedly values people's character over their appearance, it's ironic that the only thing memorable about "Robots" is how wonderful it looks.

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