The Bottom Line
Plucky inventor Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor), with a little help from his friends (Halle Berry, Robin Williams) must save older robots (including his father) from being sent to the chop shop after a ruthless corporate executive (Greg Kinnear) makes them obsolete.
The Rest of the Story
After a delightfully witty montage of Rodney's "delivery" and young robothood, Rodney finally proves his "metal" as an enterprising young inventor. His father, a dishwasher, agrees with Rodney that his best bet is to move to Robot City and show his inventions off to Mr. Bigweld (Mel Brooks), "the world's greatest robot" and head of Bigweld Corporation, the chief part-making company for the robots.
Following a brief pinball-inspired interlude taking Rodney from the train depot to the front door of Bigweld, Rodney learns that the open door policy of the company is no longer in effect. Undaunted, he interrupts a big board meeting - wherein we the audience learn the company, led by Rachet (Kinnear) plans on phasing out its spare parts department in favor of a new system of (pricey) upgrades instead, over vocal opposition from fellow worker Cappy (Berry).
Dejected and rejected, Rodney teams up with Fender (Williams) and his friendly posse (Drew Carey, Amanda Bynes, and Jennifer Coolidge in supporting roles) to help fix the robots who no longer have spare aparts available. Their need to be fixed stems from the fear of being ruled an "outmode" and sent to the chop shop - which we learn is run by Ratchet's mom (a decadent Jim Broadbent).
After exhausting themselves with work, Rodney and company decide the only way to save the robots is to talk to Mr. Bigweld, who has mysteriously gone AWOL and let Ratchet take over his business. They crash the annual ball in Mr. Bigweld's honor, only to be chased out as fugitives from the law. A visit to Mr. Bigweld's house reveals that the "world's greatest robot" has given up, confining himself to a Howard Hughes-ish world of dominoes and solitude.
In the meanwhile, Fender serendipitously stumbles on Ratchet and his mother's plot to use the profits from scrapping the outmodes to become the most powerful robots in the world. The group decides to take on Ratchet and his mother and stop their evil plan.
Will they arrive in time? Will Bigweld come to his senses? Will Rodney's father survive? Will one character actually do the robot? Good Lord, yes, and then some...
There is something creepily dystopian about a world where anthropomorphic robots reign supreme, and yet no humans appear in sight. It's kind of like those early 50s Disney productions set in colonial America, where slaves are mysteriously whitewashed from the screen (no pun intended.) You can just lean back and accept it, but there's always this nagging feeling in the back of your mind that this is just The Matrix for the under-8 crowd.
That last sentence probably belies a lot of the faults of the movie: it has a roughly 50/50 split between straight jokes (which themselves run the gamut from chucklers to laugh out loud sight gags) and jokes that only the smallest of minds would truly enjoy. An extended sequence involving a Britney Spears dance number reminded me of the truly painful "Hard Knock's Life" routine in Austin Powers 3. Other jokes had inspired concepts but fell flat in execution. When I say the names of the cameos, you'll get an idea for the mindset of executives who greenlighted this project: Al Roker, Jay Leno, Terry Bradshaw, and James Earl Jones. There are still a few surprises and subtle gags, but Futurama it ain't.
This in itself wouldn't be part of the problem - a kids' movie gets a lot of leeway in the humor department - but the plot is weak, without any sense of philosophy or metaphysics or even the slightest hint of self-reflection on what it means to be a dreamer or a robot or an inventor. It pushes a nice kid-friendly message, "Don't give up on your dreams," but even the denouement seems to suggest that recovering your dignity is just code for throwing a party.
About the only saving grace of the film besides the full-on assault of jokes is the animation. Delightful in its details and breathtaking in its scope, it is a credit to the film that you completely immerse yourself in the world without a hint of unbelievability. The movie has the advantage of presenting an artificial world, and takes advantage of its mechanically-minded actors to create some neat shots and neater physics. Much like the superior The Incredibles, this film offers yet another leap forward in computer-generated animation as the brave new world of children's entertainment.
Recently while reading a segment of Asimov's 66 Essays on the Past, Present, and Future, I noted a passage in which he opines about how a true scientist would welcome the possibility that mankind is not the pinnacle of evolution - that machines might be destined to surpass us, and we should embrace our own annihilation as part of a greater purpose. If Robots is the end result of that next step, maybe we should consider eliminating the fart joke from our AI repertoire.
Just a thought.
5 out of 10. The plot is thin but passable, the acting sufficient but unmemorable. So just go for the jokes and the still eye-popping animation.
Jim McClain (story)
Ron Mita (story)
Ewan McGregor .... Rodney Copperbottom
Halle Berry .... Cappy
Robin Williams .... Fender
Greg Kinnear .... Ratchet
Jim Broadbent .... Madame Gasket
Mel Brooks .... Bigweld
Amanda Bynes .... Piper
Drew Carey .... Crank
Jennifer Coolidge .... Aunt Fanny
Stanley Tucci .... Herb Copperbottom
Dianne Wiest .... Mrs. Copperbottom
Paul Giamatti .... Tim the Gate Guard
Stephen Tobolowsky .... Bigmouth Executive