ROBOTS - DVD review

Although Robots has great animation, wonderful visual invention, and a few clever jokes, it has no compelling characters or story to hold them together.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

When I first saw "Robots" it was in a theater, and I had the choice between it and "The Ring 2." I should have chosen "The Ring 2."

"Robots" will probably fascinate some kids with its color, its noise, and its constant motion. As an adult, however, I found the movie a joy to look at but more than a little tedious to sit through, despite the presence of Robin Williams as a primary voice. The computer animation in this 2005 production (from the same team that gave us "Ice Age") is glorious, and I found it captivating to watch for about ten minutes. Then my fascination with the detail and spectacle of the scenery and the robot designs wore off, leaving nothing but the film's weak plot and characters to kick in.

I have to admit, this was the first time I ever fell asleep in a theater. I must have been out for a good ten or fifteen minutes, judging by what I see I missed on the DVD. It was during the ballroom scene, and zap. I may have just been tired, but apparently I wasn't the only one who was less than enthralled by the movie. Many of the preschoolers in the audience with me were talking, screaming, and kicking the chairs, I assume because they were so uninterested. Two kids had to be escorted from the auditorium, presumably by their mother, never to return. Only one person was laughing at the antics on screen, an older lady in front of me who cackled insanely at every line and action.

As far as I'm concerned, as beautiful as it to look at, "Robots" lacks the warmth of the "Toy Story" movies, the hipness of the "Shrek" films, the heart of "Monsters, Inc.," and the sheer fun and excitement of "The Incredibles." Not even the talented cast of voices in "Robots" do much to instill any life into a motion picture that is mainly show and little else. With the exceptions of Robin Williams and Mel Brooks, I found most of the famous voices bland and hard to differentiate from one another. For me the result was a film with little to recommend it beyond a multitude of chases, a plethora of fights, a lot of running around, a few good one-liners aimed primarily at adults, and, of course, a stunning array of visuals. Not even the music helps. I usually sit through a movie's closing credits at the theater, but the loud pop stuff playing at the end of this one (a movie character says it's "a fusion of jazz and funk called junk") chased me off early.

As the title suggests, the movie is about robots. All the creatures in the movie are robots, mechanical devices that talk and act like humans. It's a good gimmick, much like the world of monsters in "Monsters, Inc.," except that "Monsters, Inc." was about creatures with genuine human emotions. "Robots" is about walking, talking gadgets and about thinking up clever robot gags for them to perform. Or not-so-clever robot gags, like an extended flatulence scene designed to cash in on Hollywood's incessantly juvenile interest in bodily functions.

Anyway, Ewan McGregor is the star voice behind the film's lead character, Rodney Copperbottom, and right away we have a problem. McGregor is Scottish, but for reasons unknown he does an American accent. As a result, he comes off unrecognizable as Ewan McGregor; he could be any nondescript American actor. What's the point of using a big name voice that we can't recognize? Hmmm.

Things begin at Gunk's Greasy Spoon Cafe in Rivet Town, where Herb Copperbottom discovers he's about to become a father. The baby has just been delivered in pieces, and he and his wife have to put it together. Jokes about "making a baby" follow. In fact, most of the cutest jokes come in the movie's first few minutes. After that, the gags are mostly repetitious or redundant.

Herb (voiced by Stanley Tucci) is a dishwasher, and he wants his new kid to be something more. So before long, Rodney heads out to Robot City to seek his fortune as an inventor. In the big city, he meets a fast-talking con artist, Fender (Robin Williams), who looks like an old gasoline pump; a once big-shot industrialist, Bigweld (Mel Brooks); a romantic interest, Cappy (Halle Berry); a big-bottomed boardinghouse keeper, Aunt Fanny (Jennifer Coolidge); and some dastardly villains, the slick and polished Rachet (Greg Kinnear) and his evil mother, Madame Gasket (Jim Broadbent).

The animation while often spectacular is just as often cluttered, packed with more than the eye can take in. Its style is reminiscent of a more-complicated version of the old Disney "Silly Symphonies" of the thirties, and the various robots all seem inspired by machines of the early-to-mid twentieth century. The voices, though, are purely modern, and one method of whiling away the time is trying to identify who's playing whom. I'll give you a few hints: Listen not only for the people I've already mentioned, but for Dianne Wiest, Amanda Bynes, Paul Giamotti, Natasha Lyonne, James Earl Jones (OK, that one will be easy), Paula Abdul, Drew Carey, Dan Hedaya, Marshall Efron, Jay Leno, Harland Williams, and more. The trouble is that most of these otherwise well-known voices are indistinguishable from one another in the picture without well-known faces to go with them. Oh, well....

The movie borrows from (I'll be kind, "references") any number of other films, things like "Alice in Wonderland," "The Wizard of Oz," "Braveheart," "Star Wars," "2001," "Superman," "Monsters, Inc.," and about a dozen others, even Wagner's "Die Walkure." This referencing business seems to be a favorite pastime in Hollywood anymore, so the gimmick is in itself a hip borrowing, for good or for bad.

A few bits stand out: Robin Williams's nonstop patter, although even he can't be expected to save the whole show; a Rube Goldberg-like transportation system that is fascinating to follow; a ballet on marbles scene and a "Singin' in the Oil" segment that are cute. And Mel Brooks's voice is always pleasant to listen to, especially when it sounds exactly like Mel Brooks (except when it sounds like Al Pacino, and then it's still fun).

If "Robots" hadn't tried to put the carriage before the horse, it might have worked out better. By that I mean the filmmakers might have begun with a story and characterizations first and then worked out how the movie would look. Instead, the filmmakers appear to have started with the look they wanted and tried to fit in everything around it. I can't say I'd want to watch "Robots" a third time anytime soon.

As strange as it may seem, given the high quality of the artwork involved, the Fox engineers do not afford the picture transfer their usual high bit rate. Instead, we get an ordinary bit rate and an ordinary looking picture. The image is anamorphic, enhanced for 16x9 televisions, and it measures out to fit a widescreen TV, reduced only slightly from its original 1.85:1 theatrical-release aspect ratio. However, because of the workaday bit rate Fox used, one notices any number of wavy, shimmering lines and colors that are not as deep as they could be. This is a single-disc edition, and it is possible that the studio decided to use a high degree of compression in order to cram as many extras as they could onto the one disc; or maybe they figured that kids would constitute the film's main audience, and kids wouldn't notice the difference in picture quality, anyhow; I don't know. Not that the video is bad, mind you; indeed, it is more than acceptable. It simply isn't up to Fox's usual high standards, and it certainly doesn't look as good as most of Disney's recent animations on DVD.

OK, Fox may have been stingy with their video bit rate, but there's nothing stingy about the audio, which they offer for English in both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 and for French and Spanish in Dolby Surround. In DD 5.1, the bass is big, the transient impact is solid, and the rear-channel ambience and effects are subtle but effective. I loved the sound of the dominoes in surround.

In compensation for the ordinary bit rate, there are quite a few extras on the disc. Taking them in the order they appear on the disc menu, there are two audio commentaries, the first by director Chris Wedge and producer William Joyce, the second by the Blue Sky Studio production crew and animators. You get inside information galore from both sets of commentators, so it's a toss-up which one to recommend. On the other hand, I only had time to listen to about ten hit-and-miss minutes of each, so it wouldn't be fair for me to choose sides in any case. I enjoyed Wedge's sense of humor and Joyce's, though, so I guess my first impulse would be to go with them.

Next up we have a five-minute animated short subject, "Aunt Fanny's Tour of Booty," wherein Aunt Fanny takes us on a tour of Robot City that is just as cute as anything in the movie. Then, there's a two-minute "Robots" original test, with optional director commentary, a concept demo that the filmmakers used to sell the idea. Following that are about eight minutes of "Discontinued Parts," three deleted scenes, again with optional commentary, two of them done up in close-to-finished animation and one in rough-sketch form. Finally, we come to the mandatory making-of documentary, an eighteen-minute segment, "You Can Shine No Matter What You're Made Of." It is largely talk, and a lot of it echoes what the filmmakers say on the commenary tracks, but it's still fascinating behind-the-scenes stuff. I noted that the filmmakers freely admit they started with a concept design, not a story idea. The plot had to be fitted to the images of the robot machines they dreamed up. As I said earlier, that's maybe why I didn't care overmuch for the picture as a whole.

Moving on, we find "The Blue Man Group," six minutes with the music of the film as provided by the musical team Blue Man Group. Then, there's "Meet the Bots," where viewers choose among eleven of the movie's characters and learn more about them, with a design gallery, voices, and background on each character. I'm getting tired just thinking about all this material. Continuing, there are three set-top activities: "Robot Dance," "Invent-A-Bot," and "Fender Photo Shoot," none of which I stuck with for long; an Xbox video-game demo that requires you to stick the DVD into an Xbox to play; a Fox promo for the "Robots" soundtrack, plus various trailers and recommendations for other Fox releases; and an "Inside Look" at the making of "Ice Age 2," with John Leguizamo. Whew!

Lastly, we find spoken languages in English, French, and Spanish; subtitles in English and Spanish; twenty-eight scene selections; and for a change with Fox, a chapter insert. The keep case comes enclosed in a fancy, embossed slipcover for an extra touch of elegance.

Parting Shots:
So, how did I like viewing the picture at home, less tired and away from a theater full of hyperactive preschoolers? Better. Still, beyond the movie's lack of an intriguing plot, its major flaw is not being able to make up its mind whether to appeal to children or adults. The best of the breed, like the CGI films I mentioned before and regular 2-D animations like "Snow White," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Aladdin" manage to charm both camps; but "Robots" goes after the two groups in alternate waves. One minute it's all puerile claptrap and the next minute it's making jokes that fly over any youngster's head.

Although "Robots" has great animation, wonderful visual invention, and a few clever jokes, it has no compelling characters or story to hold them together. Alas, he says with a final sigh; the movie still has all the color and imagination one could want, and maybe that should count for something.


Film Value