Well before the mega-hit "Ice Age" landed in theaters, director Chris Wedge and illustrator William Joyce
were working on early designs for "Robots," a coming-of-age story about a teenage robot with big dreams and
a big heart. And after years of dedication and development, the project finally surfaces in theaters with
dazzling results. At the center of the story is Rodney Copperbottom, an ambitious robot who dreams of becoming
an inventor and changing the world for the better. But his dreams are put to the test when Big Weld, a
corporation known for rewarding creative individuals and inspiring imaginations, gives him the cold shoulder
while secretly plotting to control the robot world. Cleverly clanky, "Robots" is a colorful, animated adventure
with bold construction and mechanized humor. And its real luster comes from within. For unlike the luckless Tin
Man, this film comes pre-delivered with a heart and soul.
In small town Rivet City, a baby is about to be delivered. But it's not your typical birthing ritual that
we humans are accustomed to. No, in a world populated exclusively by robots, babies are built, not born. And
on this particular day, Herb Copperbottom and his wife become parents to a beautiful mechanized boy they name
Rodney. Now, as Rodney grows up, there are two key individuals he comes to idolize more than anything - his
father and invention entrepreneur, Big Weld (who has his own television show that the two Copperbottoms watch
avidly). Over the years, Rodney watches his father toil away as a dishwasher, unable to keep up with the volume
of dirty dishes that come his way. So, in an effort to help his father and fill a need as Big Weld preaches,
Rodney invents a dishwashing machine. In fact, the speed washing wiz shows so much potential that his father
encourages him to pursue his dream - presenting this new invention to the big man himself, Big Weld.
To do so, Rodney hops on a train for Robot City, home to Big Weld enterprises. And upon his arrival, he
encounters a dysfunctional robot named Fender, who is looking to capitalize on tourism by taking
photographs of new arrivals and selling them maps of the [word]. Fender is the leader of a group of
misfits nicknamed the Rusties. And Rodney and Fender form an instant bond of friendship, particularly
after sharing a trip on the Cross Town Express. The journey brings Rodney to the steps of Big Weld, but
his appearance is surprisingly met with insult and ridicule. Much of this is attributed to Phineas T.
Ratchet, a maniacal tyrant who has taken over Big Weld industries and who along with his mother, Madame
Gasket, has constructed an insidious plan to do away with spare parts, thereby outmoding those who cannot
afford to upgrade. Undeterred and sensing a greater need, Rodney, along with the Rusties and Big Weld
former exec Cappy (Berry), form an alliance to repair and fix legacy robots while thwarting the efforts of
Ratchet and the new Big Weld.
While watching "Robots," it became instantly clear that the most magnificent aspect of the film is not a character;
it's a place. Robot City, in all of its grandeur, is a metropolis completely mechanized, exuding grunge and beauty,
class and social status, along with modern and retro influences. And to top it off, it's as playful and whimsically
complex a place as ever created in animation. There's the dirty, underbelly of Madame Gasket's Chop Shop, the quaint,
humble suburbs the Rusties call home, and the sophisticated and sleek buildings akin to Big Weld's modern high rise
with all the furnishings of corporate excess. Then, intertwined in all of this is a marvel of a transportation system
(The Crosstown Express), one that captures the simplicity and fancy of childhood playthings magnified to the nth
degree. Much work has gone into this aspect of the production and it's well worth the ride. In fact, it's probably
the one defining element that will beckon viewers to watch again and again.
These days, animated films are all about the vocal talent. And while "Robots" is no different,
incorporating the familiar sounds of Ewan McGregor, Robin Williams, Halle Berry, and Greg Kinnear, what
is refreshingly different is the way in which their characters are rendered. Unlike other animated
films, "Robots" does not attempt to morph the face of the vocal talent into a robotic likeness. Instead,
each character is uniquely designed with rusted paint, polish, and interchangeable parts. Researching
ideas by roaming through junkyards and factories, second hand stores, kitchens, and assembly lines,
directors Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha helped differentiate between bots: the sleek, feminine look
of Cappy; the big, rolling Big Weld; the stick like Fender; and the rotund Aunt Fanny. And their looks
are made even more impressive when you consider that all of these metallic figures live in a metallic
world, subject to the physics of light, shadow, and reflection.
The story was written by a duo of veterans: Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. This team, responsible for such comedy
classics as "Splash," "A League of their Own," and "City Slickers," know the proper balance between comedy and action,
drama and sentiment. And for the most part, they strike the proper tone as Rodney matures from adolescence to
adulthood. Yet, for some reason, the evil plotline involving Phineas T. Ratchet seemed a little underdeveloped and
confusing in parts, especially with the mysterious absence of Big Weld, the relationship with Ratchet's mother, and
the oddity of Mr. Gasket dangling from above. Equally puzzling was the spontaneous attraction between Rodney and
Cappy that can only be attributed to a lack of chemistry building. And finally, I think it's important to point out
that granting Robin Williams too much flexibility in a supporting role can and will diminish the main character's
In watching a film like "Robots," it made me realize a disturbing new trend in animation features - the
insertion of adult humor in films aimed at younger audiences. Much like the misguided "Shark Tale," these
films are doing too much in an effort to appeal to a wider audience. And while the content found in "Robots"
isn't particularly distracting, it is as noticeable as the plug and socket representations for male and female
restrooms. Now ask yourself - is this appropriate and absolutely necessary? "Finding Nemo" and "The
Incredibles" did not resort to this kind of behavior and look how successful they turned out. Of course, I'm
not trying to be a prude. I understand teenage bathroom humor, references to big booties, and fart noises
(even though robots are quite incapable) make for easy laughs. But throw in references to cross-dressing,
sadomasochism, and a few songs by Chingy (look up the definition of chingar): "I sure wouldn't mind hittin'
that from the back?when I touch it, she moan a l'il bit?jeans saggin' so I can see her thong a l'il bit." And
you'll see a mixed message co-mingled with cheap humor.
Overall, however, "Robots" is a wonder to behold, using vivid color, elaborate design, and imagination to
tell its mechanized tale. From ornate buildings and landscapes to intricate contraptions and character,
the film reeks with creative juice and joy. The only drawback is the obvious - the energy spent on
visuals outweighs the energy and attentiveness spent on the story. Add to that a certain supporting
character that when introduced, outshines or overpowers the main character, and you've lost some momentum,
creating chaos instead of continuity. Imperfections aside, "Robots" remains a splendid metal mix.