Though a technically impressive box-office success, Ice Age’s story program needed a few upgrades, namely in running the processes of emotional involvement and subversive wit.
That film’s creators are back with a radically reworked V. 2.0 for Robots. The movie is just brisk, funny and smart enough to work in points on beauty culture, caste systems, health care, commercialism and dashed dreams that go neither over kids’ heads nor too deep into their fears.
Adults might almost think they’re going to get the superiority of a Pixar production. At least until the filmmakers’ inability to straitjacket Robin Williams’ vocal insanity and strained stretches for easy fart laughs throw cogs into the gears. The results aren’t fatal, but they get in the way of the film’s truly heartwarming moments and make the film feel much more like last year’s model.
For all its problems, it’s easily the best screenplay in years from Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, once the strongest go-to guys for intelligent, crowd-pleasing comedy (Parenthood, City Slickers, Multiplicity).
They open Robots with the first of many clever spins on everyday ideas, including the “delivery” and “labor” involved in bringing robot Rodney Copperbottom into the world. Voiced by Ewan McGregor, Rodney’s dreams are bigger than the small hamlet of Rivet Town where he lives with his mother (Dianne Wiest) and his dishwasher father (Stanley Tucci).
An aspiring inventor, Rodney has been buoyed by the advice of eccentric entrepreneur Big Weld (Mel Brooks), whose motto of “See a need, fill a need” has been broadcast on TV for years. But when Rodney takes his small-but-strong Wonder Bot invention to Big Weld’s headquarters in Robot City, he finds that the head honcho has gone missing.
His company is now run by Ratchet (Greg Kinnear), a shiny new robot looking to outmode the production of spare parts for older robots in favor of expensive full-body upgrades just like his. Rodney’s aptitude for making do with spare parts makes him a savior of the cast-out robots and, along with a group of ragtag ’bots led by the frenetic Fender (Williams), he battles with Ratchet.
Ratchet’s corporate slogan — “Why be you when you can be new?” — sounds like something L’Oreal might use in a few years. His fascist notions occasionally veer into Tim Burton-esque territory with a hellish, underground scrap-metal factory (complete with Ratchet’s masterminding mom, clearly inspired by Pink Floyd’s vision of Mother in The Wall), but it’s never too scary.
And in a less thoughtful film, lines like “A dream you don’t fight for can haunt you the rest of your life” would be too cutely unbearable to take.
Sophistication spreads beyond the film’s screenplay into its animation. Corners of the screen are filled not with rampant product-placement plays on words (Shark Tale), but with inventive motion, character design and clever gags.
Public transportation in Robot City is a manic mix of pressurized mail chutes, the board game Mousetrap and the zooming traffic in Minority Report. Note the use of computer chips as eyebrows for some of the robots. And the film has one of the best-ever in jokes for film buffs; without spoiling, it comes in the frenetic finale, one every bit as good as the climax of Toy Story.
The only things that don’t compute in this otherwise enjoyable film are the standard-issue flatulence bits (here epitomized by armpit farts and a big-bottomed robot’s penchant for gas) and Williams, whose stupid accents and pop-culture bits lack the sharp precision of his Aladdin Genie. After lame references to Braveheart and Britney Spears, you’ll want his comedy to be outmoded.