The latest pretender to the Pixar throne is beautifully designed but lacks the wit and invention of recent animated films.
Animated features used to be the kind of films that kept children happy during the school holidays, but in the last ten years they have become an entirely different proposition. In 1995 Toy Story began a trend that saw animated films migrate from hand drawn kiddie fare to computer-generated blockbusters. Finding Nemo and Shrek 2 have grossed spectacular numbers and it was only a matter of time before other big Hollywood studios got in on the act. Fox’s first forays into this market were mixed – Titan A.E. failed to find a big audience – but with Ice Age grossing nearly $400 million worldwide another big animated feature was always on the cards.
Robots is Fox’s most ambitious animated film so far and takes place in a world similar to our own except for the fact that everyone is a robot. The story is a fairly conventional tale about an aspiring inventor named Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor) who tries to find his fame and fortune in Robot City. Inspired by the business success of his hero Bigweld (Mel Brooks) he finds things are harder than he expected. Bigweld has been replaced by the evil Phineas T. Ratchet (Greg Kinnear) and his scheming mother (Jim Broadbent). They plan to eliminate older robots (“outmodes”) in order to replace them with more expensive upgrades. Rodney has to enlist the help of some new friends – who include the clumsy Fender (Robin Williams) – in order to foil them.
With a fairly pedestrian and formulaic plot, the filmmakers seem desperate to compensate by throwing in an action scene at every available interval. It makes for some lively viewing – and will no doubt keep younger viewers from growing restless – but it leaves little room for the main characters who often feel stiff and one-dimensional. Halle Berry is wasted as the obligatory love interest and calling a character “Aunt Fanny” is hardly subtle. The shining exception is Robin Williams, who manages to infuse his comic sidekick role with the kind of humour he demonstrated to such good effect as the Genie in Alladin. Depsite these obvious weaknesses the animation of Robots is superb and the rendering of the metal creatures who inhabit the film rivals anything in the Pixar canon. Each robot has been meticulously designed and the city landscapes they inhabit are a marvel to behold.
But ultimately Robots falls short of the film it could have been. It lacks the heart of Finding Nemo or the shrewd intelligence of The Incredibles. Plenty of jokes are thrown in to the mix but too often they are disposable one-liners, fart gags or the usual ‘parallel universe’ references that predominate in films like this. Whilst some of them hit the target, the film would have been better served by a more engaging and original story. Directors Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha, have improved on their previous effort (Ice Age) and created some of the best visuals seen in a mainstream animated film, but next time a better script could help them create something truly special.
The official site includes the usual collection of games and galleries but more interesting is the site for Blue Sky Studios which shows how they put their films together. For those interested in how the film was animated 3D Excellence have an interview with Carl Ludwig and Mike Eringis of Blue Sky on the technology that makes it all possible and The Observer have a good profile of director Chris Wedge here.