dirs. Chris Wedge and
PG, 90 min.
Opens Friday at area theaters
Perversely, at a time when movies seem more disposable than everpart of a revved-up cycle of blitzkrieg marketing, opening-weekend grosses and attention-deficit entertainment reportingthey've entered a new life as shiny little keepsakes. Film is of secondary importance to the DVD collectible. As Edward Jay Epstein writes in The Big Picture, a sobering new breakdown of Hollywood's profit machinery, the studios "have now all come to realizeas Disney did a half-century earlierthat the value they create lies not in the tickets they sell at the box office but in the licensable products they create for future generations of consumers." Here's looking at you, kids.
And yet the best children's movies of recent years not only embrace the DVD form, they accept the challenge of rewarding the countless repeat screenings that a disc allows. On that score, the new digital fantasy Robots avoids the aluminum scrapheap. A mix of childlike wonder and commercial calculation, with the former winning out surprisingly often, Robots doesn't have the emotional pull or unity of the Pixar movies that have set the standard. But it's teeming with sight gags, impressive designs and the sort of fully imagined detail that'll keep kids happily frame-advancing for years.
Though the technology gleams, the basic premises of Robots date from silent movies: the idealistic young go-getter up against dizzying obstacles; the city divided between a ruling class in the clouds and the riff-raff on the street. The hero, would-be gearhead Rodney Copperbottom (voice of Ewan McGregor), leaves his metallic suburb, determined to build the dream life his (literal) dishwasher dad never found. The destination is Robot City, a bustling erector set of a metropolis whose benign public face is billionaire inventor Mr. Bigweld (voice of Mel Brooks). Upon arriving, Rodney is crushed to find that Bigweld's presence at his company is merely symbolic; the corporation's true ruler is a cold-blooded snot named Ratchet (Greg Kinnear).
Swap "Bigweld" for "Walt Disney" and "Ratchet" for "Michael Eisner," and you'll find some sharp edges poking through the movie's eagerness to please. But Robots seems aware of its own position on the studio assembly line. Like its retro-futurist tin-can heroes, the movie's a clever recycling of used parts. Robot City's zippy pinball conveyances travel along a roller-coaster track Wile E. Coyote might've ordered from Acme Public Transportation. The metal-punning gags are essentially Iron Age variations on Flintstones shtick. Even Robin Williams' wisecracking guide revives his manic Genie spritzing from Aladdin.
Apart from Williams, though, who practically announces his presence with air-raid sirens, one of Robots' chief pleasures is the unobtrusive excellence of its voice cast. I didn't recognize Stanley Tucci, who's delightful as Rodney's plucky dad, or Paul Giamatti as an obnoxious tin-toy security guard, and I was pleased not to: that would have jolted me out of the movie's carefully detailed world. The director, Chris Wedge, and co-director Carlos Saldanha have improved upon the lumbering whimsy of Wedge's previous success Ice Age, mainly by immersing themselves in the whirring minutiae of their mechanized cityscape.
The downside, basically, is clutter. The movie juggles so many big-name bit parts that few make an impression, and the story meanders to accommodate them all. The big action finish is overkill in every sense. The script was written by the unlikely team of Fuddy Meers playwright David Lindsay-Abaire and Ron Howard gagmeisters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, and nobody seems to have reconciled the sweetly snappy retro storyline with the now-requisite bathroom gags. (So much for futuristic technology: robots fart.) Even the eye-widening street scenes, with their astonishing depth of detail and incident, go by in a blur on one viewing.
But the movie, whose bittersweet theme is the eventual obsolescence of people and machinery alike, was plainly intended to last. Robots defies the kind of linear narrative drive that has always been Pixar's specialty. Instead, it's a bit like flipping the pages of an I Spy picture book: your eye is constantly scanning the corners for shiny objects. (It reminded me of watching Jacques Tati's Playtime, another movie about the disorienting dazzlements of city life.) It may be that one side effect of the DVD revolution will be an emphasis on eye-grabbing, easily scannable visuals and scenes over a cohesive story. At least the technology in Robots is still warm to the touch.
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That clip is horrifying. It looks like postmortem makeup. Very uncanny valley.
AGGGHHHH that last picture!