How do you make something mechanical feel alive? That"s the challenge facing any movie with computer-generated imagery. And it"s a more specific issue for Robots, 20th Century Fox"s latest 3-D animated extravaganza.
The film, a brainchild of Chris Wedge (director of Ice Age) and children"s book author William Joyce, takes place in a metallic, nuts-and-bolts world populated by retro-looking machines. (Herb, the father of Rodney, the lead character, has sink strainers for ears, and Rodney"s mom has the coloration and rounded chrome of a 1950s blender.
Most of the film"s gags spring from the machine-ness of these characters -- babies are delivered in a box, and 12 hours of labor is how long it takes to put the thing together.
But, obviously, these robots are intended to stand in for humans. They"ve got feelings, desires and existential angst, just like the rest of us.
Robots" problem is that it has a hard time making us believe that bots are people, too. Instead, the film feels soulless -- it"s mechanical in the wrong ways.
Robots has a promising scenario: Rodney leaves his small town for Robot City, where he hopes to apprentice with renowned inventor and entrepreneur Bigweld. But Bigweld is about to be usurped by his assistant, Phineas Rachet.
On advice from his mom, Phineas begins planning obsolescence for all existing Bigweld products, seeking to force consumers to buy brand new machines. He halts production on replacement parts, forcing older bots to pay for a shiny new upgrade or be melted down at the chop shop.
Of course, Rodney and his clanky, decrepit friends must stop this dastardly plan. Of course, they do. The message, kids: What"s under the hood matters more than having a glossy finish.
Robots uses an unfortunate narrative strategy, unfolding as a series of visual gags, one-liners and dizzying action sequences. Some of it works, some doesn"t. (As usual, I enjoyed the first two dozen fart jokes. After that, I thought they lost their edge.)
The problem with Robots" mile-a-minute pace is that it keeps us from engaging with the characters. Any stabs Robots takes at building emotion have a false clang.
Robots" biggest missed opportunity is not recognizing its strongest element: Wedge and Joyce"s grand, gorgeous backdrops. The film"s design is as impressive as in any computer-generated film. Its nostalgic-futuristic cities are Rube Goldberg-esque, filled with goofy contraptions and a dazzling range of surfaces, from buffed, shiny metal to junkyard materials.
Unfortunately, the characters continue to stand between the movie"s brilliant landscapes and us. They keep talking! And doing stuff! Step aside, please....
Robin Williams, who voices Rodney"s goofy, clunky sidekick Fender, gets all the good lines. (When Rodney tells Fender to show the bad guys what he"s made of, Fender says, "A rare metal called afradium. It"s yellow and tastes like chicken.")
But Williams" manic energy doesn"t help Robots along -- it just reinforces the idea that the filmmakers care more about shtick than communicating deeper levels of emotion and truth.
That"s something that you"d never say about Pixar Animation Studios movies, which feel more human than the typical Hollywood live-action film.