by Ed Symkus

Such a promising start, such a resulting dud. Much like its predecessor, Ice Age, which was co-directed by the same team, Robots is a visually splendid, wildly designed computer-animated cartoon whose makers are obviously hoping to grab the short attention spans of very young, undiscerning viewers and again turn their film into box office gold. That's an understatement concerning Ice Age, which tripled its budget domestically, before also doing quite well around the world.

But if that film's main problem was its cast of loud, garrulous, annoying characters -- I still haven't forgiven John Leguizamo for accosting my ears -- this movie is simply bombastic and unoriginal. As for the intended (and very young) audience: At the screening I attended, there were a couple of 2-year-olds who were crying -- make that screaming -- every time the film reached its usual high levels of volume.

But it does start out promisingly. A visit to Rivet Town, a charming mechanical equivalent of Mayberry, introduces happy-go-lucky Herb (voice of Stanley Tucci) -- a robot who works at the local caf & eacute; as a dishwasher (literally, as a dishwasher) as he announces he's going to be a dad. He runs home to his wife (Dianne Wiest) just as their new "Build a Baby" box, complete with instructions, arrives. "Making the baby's the fun part," she says to him coyly.

But that extinguishes the Robots supply of snappy, risqu & eacute; dialogue for adults. Years later, their son Rodney (Ewan McGregor) has decided to become an inventor and intends to leave home for the big city. Mom cries, but Dad tells him to follow his dream.

Don't expect any more subtlety. Arriving in Robot City (now there's an imaginative name), the film leaps into overdrive, overwhelming viewers with visual gags that come flying so furiously, they hardly register. Almost immediately, we meet Fender (Robin Williams), who talks faster than the gags come flying. First he tries to hustle the smiling, excitable Rodney; later he decides to take him under his rusty arm.

This is a story of a na & iuml;ve young man who wants to achieve success and make his dad proud. The plan is to meet up with his TV host role model, Bigweld (Mel Brooks), whose inspired speeches to robots everywhere have carried the message, "See a need, fill a need" -- words Rodney intends to live by, just as soon as he can manage to meet Mr. Bigweld.

Alas, instead of Bigweld running things, Rodney finds the villainous, sleek Ratchet (Greg Kinnear, in a funny, over-the-top performance), whose dastardly plans are to get rid of spare parts for robots and only offer upgrades. Hmm, is this going over some of those younger viewers' heads yet?

It all quickly turns into a case of good versus evil. Ratchet is so full of himself, he doesn't realize he's being manipulated by someone (something?) else. Rodney ingratiates himself with so many downtrodden robots, he becomes a sort of folk hero. There's a love interest (Halle Berry, in yet another uninspired part). There's a series of wild chases through the neo-Erector Set-like city. And for any 10-year-old boys out there in the audience, there's a litany of toilet jokes.

The film isn't a total failure. Some of its flashiness is quite amazing; a scene involving thousands of dominoes is a real knockout. And come to think of it, there is one other great joke any adult viewers who happen to be fans of 2001: A Space Odyssey will appreciate.

But in the end, all Robots really has to depend upon is its visual style. In desperately trying to be hip, the scriptwriters -- even the legendary Lowell Ganz-Babaloo Mandel team (A League of Their Own, City Slickers) -- have resorted to leaving no movie clich & eacute; unturned, borrowing liberally from Westerns, war films, kung fu, science fiction, even wrestling matches. That might have worked to a degree if done more sparingly, and if directors Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha had kept the film at a less frantic pace.

Not surprisingly, good triumphs over evil and everything ends up just chirpy. The finale includes a big musical number in a style that Fender explains is "a fusion of jazz and funk called 'junk.'"

Knowing my feelings for this film, it shouldn't take much effort to incorporate that last bit of dialogue into your own wiseguy exit line for this review.

Publication date: 03/10/05

Festival of America @ Grand Coulee

Mon., July 4, 2-10:30 p.m.
  • or