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Directed by Chris Wedge, co-directed by Carlos Saldanha, with voices by Robin Williams, Drew Carey, Halle Berry, Greg Kinnear, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Diane Wiest and Mel Brooks, 89 minutes, Blue Sky Productions, Production design by William Joyce, written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, based on the story by Jim McClain and Ron Mita, color, rated PG, 2005


By Carter B. Horsley

"Robots" is an extremely original and very spectacular animation movie that is chock full of surprises and several absolutely mind-blowing sequences.

It is a great work of art. Virtually every scene is a fine composition full of adorable thing-a-mabobs, each with distinct and very expressive personalities. Stylistically, the movie-makers have created a highly consistent aesthetic that is the quintessence of the spirit of Art Deco/International Modern, fairly streamlined with little artistic flourishes: the machine world of the 1930s to 1950s come alive.

It is a wacky, albeit not too high-tech, tinker heaven. Grease-monkeys, start your engines!

Joy in Robot City

Animation and special effects have come a very long way. The virtual world of movies has made "Alien" (see The City Review article) monsters and "Terminator 2" (see The City Review article) and prehistoric creatures and toys come alive with marvelous realism.

The greatness of "Bladerunner" (see The City Review article) was the emotional intensity of robots not wanting to die, and, of course, its brilliant sets of a bleak future, megastructural world.

"Robots" is distinguished by a slightly dull metallic palette that is as important in its own way as the intensely brilliant technicolor world in "The Wizard of Oz" (see The City Review article) or the richly saturated tints of "Dick Tracy" (see The City Review article). Everything is not shiny and bright and new in "Robots," but rather worn and scratched and dented and used, factors that significantly enhance its believeability.

Like "Pinocchio," "Robots" is a morality play of sorts. The former stressed the importance of telling the truth. The latter's theme is the importance of perseverance and good works.

Every movie with great animation has a couple of truly memorable scenes: the bar scene in "Star Wars" where a google of strange creatures cavort and the forest scene where the humans fly through a forest; and countless climaxes in recent disaster movies like "Independence Day," and "Armageddon." Despite a rather slow start, "Robots" does not save its ammunition until the end and is full of "wow" sequences. "Titanic" had its ship. "Gladiator" had its colosseum." "The Fifth Element" (see The City Review article) had its flying cabs. "Robots" has its Rube Golbergian pinball transportation sequence, its wind-up flock of birds on the street scene, its dishwashing sequence and many more.

We are going very accustomed to a virtual world where the restraints of reality are released. The superhuman feats of derring-do in "House of the Flying Daggers" (see The City Review article), "Hero" (see The City Review article), and the "Superman" and "Batman" and "The Mummy" (see The City Review article) series have forever transformed the self-consciousness of mere mortals. We are probably endangered of becoming blasť about movie magic and "Robots" is just the tonic to take to shake the virtual blues.

Rodney Copperbottom and Fender

Rodney Copperbottom and Fender

What is most endearing about "Robots" is that while the robots have human characteristics of movement and expression, they also have their "foibles."

Some are not too bright, some are obsessed with the opposite sex, some are evil, some are mean, some are heroic.

Cappy, Rodney Copperbottom, Fender

Cappy, Rodney Copperbottom, Fender

The film begins with the birth/assembly of Rodney Copperbottom, whose voice is Ewan McGregor. As he grows up, his father gives him new spare parts and is advised by his father, Herb, whose voice is Stanley Tucci, a dishwasher to follow his dreams as an inventor. Young Rodney invents a helicopter fixer-upper to help his father at the kitchen where he works. Soon he decides to depart Rivet City in the hopes of meeting his hero, Big Weld, whose voice is Mel Brooks, in Robot City where he runs a huge company. Upon arrival in Robot City, he is accosted by Fender, whose voice is Robin Williams, a tourist hustler, and Cappy, a yellow feminine robot who takes a shine to him, whose voice is Halle Berry, and Crank Casey, whose voice is Drew Carey.

When they try to meet Big Weld they are confronted instead by Phineas T. Ratchet, whose voice is Greg Kinnear. Ratchet is the most streamlined of all the robots and has a very domineering mother, Madame Gasket, whose voice is Jim Broadbent, and they have taken over control of BigWeld Industries and have ending the making of spare parts to encourage "upgrades."

In hisMarch 11, 2005 review of the film, Roger Ebert notes that Ratchet "is uninterested in improving the product because a perfect product would be bad for sales." This rationale, of course, is at the heart of "The Man in the White Suit" (see The City Review article), the comedic masterpiece about inventiveness and corporate and labor union ethics.

'"Upgrades! That's how we make the dough!" he explains, sounding like a consumer electronics executive. By the time this movie comes out on DVD, there will be two competing and incompatible DVD-HD systems in the marketplace, which will suit Phineas T. Ratchet just fine, since whichever one you buy, you should have bought the other one, and he will manufacture both," Mr. Ebert observed.

(Mr. Ebert liked the movie, which got mixed reviews from some critics, maintainging that it "is a joy to behold entirely apart from what it is about. It looks happy, and, more to the point, it looks harmonious. One of the reasons this entirely impossible world works is because it looks like it belongs together, as if it evolved organically.")

Mr. Ebert also notes that "giant corporations have replaced Nazis as dependable movie villains," adding that Ratchet, who plans an inside takeover of Big Weld's empire, is obviously a student of the theories of conspicuous consumption and planned obsolescence."

Some reviewers have passed "Robot" off as a kiddie flick, but that is a mistake for this is a complete and mature work of art.

James Berardinelli, a well-known critic, was not enthralled by the movie, but conceded in his review that is has "a certain conceptual elegance" and, perhaps more importantly, sophistication. He notes that fire hydrant, voiced by Jay Leno, hisses at a tiny robot dog about to lift its leg, "Don't even think about it!" Mr. Bernardinelli confessed that "Robots" was the first "family animated feature in which more than 50 percent of the gags seemed squarely aimed at grown-ups."

If there is a flaw, it is a somewhat prolonged flatulence sequence, which some critics have argued appeals to the very young.

The DVD, which has a list price of $19.98, includes commentary by the director and producer, deleted scenes, interactive games and several other special features.

This film is ranked 157th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films.

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