A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

 

Rank: #21

ROBOTS jjjj

2004, PG, 106 mins.

With the voices of:

Rodney Copperbottom: Ewan McGregor / Fender: Robin Williams / Phineas T. Ratchet: Greg Kinnear / Big Weld: Mel Brooks / Cappy: Halle Berry / Crank Casey: Drew Carey / Piper Pinwheeler: Amanda Bynes / Herb Copperbottom: Stanley Tucci / Tim: Paul Giamatti / Madame Gasket: Jim Broadbent

Directed by Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha / Written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel /  Based on the story by Jim McClain and Ron Mita

Robots (Advance) PosterMake no mistake about it; we are currently in a Golden Age of computer-animated cinema.  There seems to be absolutely no end in sight, not to mention any bounds to which the high tech computer wizards are able to climb to in order to dazzle and amaze us.  It's amazing to think that it was almost ten years ago that the first TOY STORY burst on to the scene and unveiled to the movie going public what could and can be done with computer animated technology.  That film was the watershed work that acted as a springboard for the current CG entertainments that we bare witness to today, and the last year or so has been an exemplary period for the growth of this  relatively young genre. 

2004 had its shard of success, like SHREK 2, the unabashedly charming sequel to the first film about a giant green Ogre, followed by THE INCREDIBLES, a wonderful entertaining satire on super heroes.  Last fall’s THE POLAR EXPRESS, a film whose magic rivals that of classic escapist fantasies of the past, populates the upper echelon.  Now comes ROBOTS, a new animated film from the makers of ICE AGE, and it is a work that is absolutely dripping in beautifully realized details and unbridled imagination.  ROBOTS is kind of a modest reminder that, oftentimes, the only thing that great films have to do is instill a sense of natural wonder, amazement, awe, excitement. This new animated film is packed with a surprising amount of appeal, wit, and a sly sense of slapstick humor.  More than anything though, it is the sheer density of the artistic creation of ROBOTS that makes it stand out.  Much like George Lucas’ STAR WARS pictures, this film is an absolute joy to behold in terms of just drinking in the audacious visuals and being completely absorbed in them.  This is one of the most creative and pleasurable films I have seen thus far in 2005, a film that is as visually arresting and astonishing as it is clever and sharp with its laughs.  

The one thing that amazed me about ROBOTS was, pretty much only a mere few minutes into it, just how absorbed you really become in it.  This is a film that could not possibly be taken in only once, because the sheer mass and scope of its visual eye is so far ranging and complete.  Watching any of the STAR WARS pictures you remember the sheer breadth of those films’ vision, where there were the most minute of intricate details flowing through every frame.  You get the same impression with ROBOTS, which takes great pains to be an epic animated film that everything has a naturalness and cadence to it.  It is an outlandish world and universe, to be sure, but the more you invest in its world and characters the less noticeable the technology behind making it becomes.  That’s the key to this film’s success – you become so captivated by the film’s look that you literally forget that your watching animation, so much that you are willing to believe in this wacky universe and the strange creatures that populate it.  ROBOTS is just so eye-popping and intricately fascinating to look at – you loose yourself so completely in it that you disregard the computer tools behind it, no easy task for modern animated films. 

ROBOTS is about, well, robots and their respective all robot/machine cities they live in.  Amazingly, everything looks, feels, and behaves remarkably human, which is ironic seeing as they are clearly nothing organic in the film.  As a matter of fact, the robots of ROBOTS work at crummy jobs, have wives and live in suburbs, and even have babies, but not in the literal ways that make the process understandable to us lay human folk.  At the beginning of the film robot Herb Copperbottom and his long-time wife are about to prepare for the arrival of their new “baby”, but it's not pregnancy or even a stork that brings in its arrival; rather, their new baby arrives in a shipping crate with “some assembly required” marked rather humorously on it.  Of course, the robot can’t naturally grow bigger, so all the mom and dad do is give it upgrades from time to time.  When the adolescent son turns to his dad and declares that the new parts “are not shinny and new”, the mother interrupts and says, “Well, dear, they are hand-me-downs.” 

Well, needless to say, the young boy robot grows (or is it built?) into a young male robot named Rodney (voiced by the very enthusiastic Ewan McGregor).  He was “born” in Rivet City, but has big aspirations to be a world-renowned inventor and move to the huge megalopolis that is ROBOT CITY, where he hopes that an eccentric and mysterious millionaire named Big Weld will be so enamored by his inventions that he’ll give him work.  Rodney’s dad (Stanley Tucci) also has big hopes for his son, maybe because all he accomplished in life was being a lowly dishwasher (the appliance is actually a part of his lower torso, which always means that he tends to brings his work home with him).  The father works at one of those robot diners, you know, the one that serves your daily dosage of grease that always goes down the pipe (or pipes) so well. 

Rodney becomes so encouraged by his father that he decides to follow his dream and head for the Big Apple-bolt that is Robot City.  Before he knows it, he is there, which is absolutely nothing like his hometown Rivet.  The people are definitely a bit more strange and alarming, as is with the first robot he meets, Fender (the subdued, yet tastefully manic Robin Williams) who is one of those annoying nobodies that snaps a picture of a tourist, demands their immediate money for his services, sells postcards and even has maps to “celebrity homes”.  One of the maps, if you look close enough, it has an address for Brittany Gears. 

More than anything, Fender introduces Rodney to the town’s transportation system, which provides for the film’s most joyous and wildly original visuals, not to mention laughs.  Here, as they literally get catapulted, spring-loaded, shot, and propelled across the entire city, you get a generous amount of affection for just how much fun the makers of the film have with their universe.  These moments are dizzying, kinetic, and made even more frenzied by the presence of Fender, always there to provide sure-fire comic relief.  It’s a roller coaster ride all right, and if Rodney could actually eat real food, he would have most definitely have lost it. 

The narrative then essentially focuses on a big corporation’s desire to do away with the spare parts business and instead want to do nothing but upgrades (their motto is “Why be you when you could be NEW!”).  There is one character named Big Weld (the always affable Mel Brooks) who does a TV program that always advertises the greatness of all of his enterprises, but, much like the Wizard in THE WIZARD OF OZ, when Rodney wants to see him and show him his new invention, he is greeted by a rude doorman who has no desire to let him see him.   

In truth, Big Weld does not really run the show of his corporation anymore.  That is handled by the wormy and despicable figure of Phineas T Ratchet (Greg Kinear) who has no desire at all to stay in the spare parts business.  He sees the future of big upgrades and big sales.  He’s a true executive at heart, willing to cut down the little man in order to make some extra dough.  However, Phineas does not run the office alone, as he is dominated by his wicked old mother, Madame Gasket, played deliciously malevolent by Jim Broadbent.  They both have a dastardly plan:  create such a vast shortage of spare parts that people will have to buy their upgrades, or just be replaced by something newer because, let’s face it, who wants the same old rusty robot begging for spare oil on the streets?  Actually, in one funny sight gag, a down-on-his luck robot is begging for change, with a sign “got screwed” on his chest.  Well, since he has a giant screw stuck in his cranium, he was not kidding. 

Needless to say, Rodney teams himself up with a series of colorful sidekicks, including Fender and Cappy (Halle Berry) and a group of other misfit robots and begin to dive into some of the secrets of Robot City.  This leads to them planning to meet Big Weld himself, which further leads to the Big Weld headquarters  that culminates in a BRAVEHEART-esque battle pitting used/spare part robots versus Phineas’s legion of newer upgrades.  There is even one funny tirade by Fender before the battle that will leave you thinking that this references to that 1995 period film is more than coincidental. 

ROBOTS is a film that bombards us with everything, and I mean that as a very sincere compliment.  There is no expense too great to provide the audience with as much visual gags, contraptions, and beautiful scenery as we can handle.  The film caresses along its 90 minutes in a sort of carefree, joyous, jumpy, and spirited kind of way and never becomes lifeless.  It has a great amount of fun with its visual sight gags, which sort of give the film sophistication and intelligence I was not altogether expecting.  On a humour level, ROBOTS is always entertaining, and under the inevitable goofiness of Brooks, Williams, and company, it never waivers with providing some serious chuckles.  As breezy and likeable as the characters are, the film’s lush and magical scenery are the real highlights, and the design and execution of the robots, the cities, everything has such a enormous range of inventiveness and whimsicality.  The colour palette, the minutiae, and the sheer cheerfulness of the overall look of the world are truly breathtaking.  This is one of the most unique looking of the recent animated features, and it stands up as a terrific and vivid technorama. 

ROBOTS is just pure giddiness, a delightful and funny animated picture that always exists on a simple and wonderful level of just looking at it and taking in all of its visual opulence.  Like all great escapist family entertainment, the film never leaves your innate sense of wonderment in question, and you’ll end up finding yourself both entertained and drained by the experience.  This is also an animated film that has sufficient smartness to it, with snappy and sharp dialogue and witty satirical referencing as well.  It is the film’s complete sophistication with its humor and visuals that makes it stand out as a real crowd-pleaser, and this only helps to solidify it as one of the best animated features to be produced outside of the highly regarded Pixar and DreamWorks animated studios.  ROBOTS is what all great-animated films should be:  light-hearted, cheerful, exuberant, crafty, and wholeheartedly mesmerizing on a technical level.  On these principles, ROBOTS achieves the status quo and surpasses it.

 

REVIEW UPDATE:

 I just recently had the opportunity to see ROBOTS on the giant screen IMAX format.  This version is definitely the way you want to see it, which gives the density and scope of the film's creative visuals the presentation they most assuredly deserve.

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