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Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2005

Rusty 'bots get a chance to shine


Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Chris Wedge
Running time: 91 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

When it comes to CG animation, it still feels like everyone's trying to catch up with Pixar, the creators of "Toy Story," "The Incredibles," et al.

News photo
Valiant Rodney Copperbottom faces down evil in Blue Sky Studio's "Robots." (c) 2005 TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

If imitation is the truest form of flattery, then Pixar must be blushing at the animated output of Dreamworks, who released both "Antz" and "A Shark's Tail" hot on the heels of Pixar's similarly themed "A Bug's Life" and "Finding Nemo."

Taking a slightly more original tack is Blue Sky Studios and 20th Century Fox, who debuted in 2002 with "Ice Age," a rollicking piece of slapstick that owed more to Bugs, Daffy and Porky over at Warner Bros. than anything Pixar has produced. Their new feature, "Robots," definitely shows the Pixar influence: like Pixar has done with toys, bugs, fish and monsters, "Robots" takes a subject that kids find irresistible and populates a world similar to our own with them. Moreover, they've spared no expense in taking the animation to levels you just wouldn't have thought possible.

The look of the film's robots is pure retro as opposed to the gleaming, sleek designs of Sony's Aibo or its movie spinoff, "Hinokio." "Robots" features clunky, rusty metal-men that look like what would happen if something off the cover of a 1930s issue of Amazing Stories collided with a Cadillac and a fire hydrant. Like last year's "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," "Robots" draws on yesterday's visions of the future to provide an alternative to the "Star Wars"/"Star Trek"/"Alien" look that has dominated the sci-fi genre for the last decade. Everything seems driven by cogs and gears, hydraulics and wind-up keys, with barely a microprocessor to be glimpsed, except (presumably) in the voice cards inserted into a robot "dog."

We first meet our hero, Rodney Copperbottom (voiced by Ewan McGregor), when he's born; his parents assemble him from a box of parts. ("Making the baby is the fun part," says Mom. ) Sometimes it feels like the film's story, as well, is cobbled together from a box of parts, including "The Wizard Of Oz," "Metropolis," and "Monsters, Inc.," with a hilarious quote from "2001" just for the fun of it.

Young Rodney is forced to grow using hand-me-down parts, because his dishwasher dad is too poor to provide better. The boy is inspired by a TV show featuring the rotund robot Goodweld (Mel Brooks), who encourages robots to invent and create, and to join his company in Robot City. "You can shine no matter what you're made of," beams Goodweld, a rolling, gleaming incarnation of meritocracy.

Rodney invents a little helicopter-like 'bot that cleans dishes to help his dad, and then decides to take it to Goodweld in Robot City. There, he's stopped at the gates (" Wizard of Oz" quote #1), but manages to learn that Goodweld is missing and that the corporation's new head, Ratchet (Greg Kinnear), has a nefarious plan to discontinue selling spare parts, forcing older robots to buy expensive upgrades or face the junk heap. (A plot twist that sounds like a Bill Gates wet dream.)

Since Rodney's only friends in the city are Fender, an Artful Dodger-type voiced by Robin Williams, and his band of worse-for-wear street 'bots, Rodney turns his tinkering skills to fixing robots who can't afford the upgrades. This attracts Ratchet's attention, but his pretty assistant, Cappy (Halle Berry), goes over to Rodney's side to help him escape. (And I waited in vain for the rest of the movie to hear Ratchet say he was going to "bust a cap in her ass" . . .)

The characters are fairly bland, the story's feel-good bromides about accepting difference feel rote, and the jokes lack the clever bite of Pixar, leaning more toward the "Shrek" realm of arm-farts and big butts, enhanced by a bit of Robin Williams' camp. But, as with "Ice Age," many of the visual gags are fiendishly clever and perfectly executed. Things like a robot being stopped at a metal detector or a diner that serves up plates of bolts and cups of steaming grease or -- best of all -- a street-performer robot who breakdances, are the sort of good filler that keeps the film engaging. Then there's this truly mind-boggling scene where Rodney and Fender take public transit across town . . . which consists of being locked in a metal ball and launched by a giant hammer through ramps, chutes and pulleys, with ever more insane hurtling and breakneck spinning to follow. It's the sort of sequence that will demand a dozen viewings on DVD; just don't expect a theme-park ride for this one.

As always with children's films, it's interesting to contrast the message being sent with the way things really are. "Robots" is quick to condemn Ratchet and his greedy corporation for manufacturing desires -- "why be you, when you can be new?" he asks -- and his cynical belief that money talks and BS walks.

Rodney and his funky friends are held up as exemplary for their belief in friendship and loyalty, despite how run-down they may look. Yet this is a film made by a media mega-corporation -- one of a decreasing few thanks to mergers -- and one that no doubt hopes it can manufacture desires for new toys and games and snacks among its target audience. And their belief, as reflected in the product, is that an astronomical amount of money spent on making the product look good will ensure success. Such are life's little ironies, but mercifully the kids don't have to ponder them. Yet.

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