Robots features Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor) as an idealistic young robot leaving both his home town and his parents for Robot City - a bustling metropolis that offers Rodney his dream of working for Mr Bigweld (Mel Brooks), who, through his television show, offers a safe haven for inventors. When Rodney arrives, having been distracted by the crumbling Fender (Robbie Williams), he finds no welcome from Bigweld's corporation. Instead, Bigweld looks to have been replaced by Ratchet (Greg Kinnear) and that it now promotes expensive upgrades rather than spare parts. But what Rodney doesn't realise is that the truth is even more sinister - Ratchet's mother Madame Gasket (Jim Broadbent) runs a chop shop deep underground where ageing robots are broken down and melted. Teaming up with Fender and his ragtag bunch of rusting robots, all of whom are in dire need of spare parts, as well as Cappy (Halle Berry), a sympathetic robot from within Ratchet's empire, Rodney aims to restore Bigweld to his rightful place and to, once again, make his company a place where the door is never closed and inventors are always welcome.
It feels odd to actually express an preference either way for a movie studio but Dreamworks almost invite the comparison with Pixar given the similarity between their products. Antz to A Bug's Life, Shark Tale to Finding Nemo - once might be coincidental but twice? Dreamworks appear to want to be compared to their rival, which is unfortunate as their noisy, colourful films compare badly to Pixar's 'story is king' philosophy.
And where does Blue Sky Studios fit in to this pairing? Were you to base an opinion on Ice Age - a warm and caring story set in the freezing snow about a mammoth, sloth and sabre-toothed tiger returning a child to its father - you would edge them closer to Pixar. For Robots, the almost constant action and Blue Sky's promotion of the voice talent - Ewan MacGregor, Robin Williams and Halle Berry amongst others - suggests that the story is not as strong as it might have been, despite having a script from the writers of Parenthood and City Slickers (Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel). It even plumps for the widely-criticised re-recording of American voice actors for regional equivalents, which was last seen in Dreamworks' Shrek 2 and Shark Tale, meaning that we lose Natasha Lyonne in favour of Cat Deeley. But, admittedly, a comparison to Shark Tale is unfair as it's certainly not as awful as that low point of recent animation.
To follow Watership Down with Robots is to make an interesting comparison with animation of the past to those of today. In Watership Down, much time passes in which very little happens. Similarly, Walt Disney classics like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty make space for elaborate musical sequences such as, in the latter, the Once Upon A Dream dance in the forest. Robots, on the other, never lets a moment pass by without lots of things happening onscreen. Indeed, it was only by listening to the commentary that the viewer could pick up every single joke and reference in the film. Is it possible to spot a robotic Sid, the sloth from Ice Age, without such assistance? I think not.
The aim of the filmmakers might well be to give an incentive to viewers to watch the film over and over again in the hope of spotting all of the references, parodies and background jokes. But, in doing so, you suspect that they are actually missing the reasons behind why people watch films time and again. I could happily watch Mary Poppins once a week simply for what happens from the moment Jane and Michael Banks disappear up the chimney. I'm not going to bemoan today's kids as being a Playstation generation unable to focus on anything that doesn't fry their retinas on an almost constant basis - the success of the Harry Potter, Lemony Snickert and the Gruffalo stories suggest that children are reading just as many books as they have ever done - but I suspect that such a justification is used by the makers of Robots, Shrek 2 and Shark Tale as to why their films never just stop for a moment.
Despite Ewan MacGregor being at the centre of Robots' story, it is Robin Williams who provides its voice as Fender, robot whose voice dial has been left pointing to 'constantly annoying' so long that it's rusted into position. Williams is doing the same schtick that he did for Aladdin, being a mish-mash of quickfire jokes, impersonations and verbal double-takes. And yet, these aren't the only two worth noting. Long after Halle Berry, Greg Kinnear, Mel Brooks and Jim Broadbent appear in the credits, there's also Jay Leno as a talking fire hydrant and James Earl Jones is credited as the Voice Box at the Hardware Store and that's before we get to Chris Moyles, Cat Deeley and - dear lord, has it come to this? - Terry Wogan and Eamonn Holmes.
Whilst Robots never makes the same, grave mistake as did Shrek 2 and Shark Tale by making their characters look like the voice actors - helpfully, in case you didn't work it out, the Martin Scorcese fish also sported a pair of outsized eyebrows - it shares their battering of the eyes and ears with information. There's no ebb and flow here, simply a great wave of digital effects and familiar voices that doesn't really compensate for a barely-there story that's stretched as thin as the titanium on Ratchet's buffed upgrades.
It's for all those reasons that Robots is a bit of disappointment after Ice Age. That was a wonderful film that mixed the physical comedy of the doomed, apocalyptic dodos with a story that, like the Toy Story films, had a heart. Robots seems to ask whether someone can really still be themselves after countless upgrades. It may, therefore, be a critique of a society obsessed with beauty, youth and cosmetic surgery but the film doesn't really pitch the question at the right level nor does it keep track of it amongst the chase scenes. There's even mention of it at the end in a comment made by Mr Gasket to Ratchet but it's lost amongst the parodies of The Lord Of The Rings (Piper doing a Legolas) and Braveheart (Robin Williams, naturally, whose Scottish accent is as convincing as Mike Myers').
It is - and this will be the question by which it stands or falls - funny and had my kids laughing a great deal, which was just what was needed after the horrors of Watership Down. There are too many jokes to list but, personally, I loved the bodypopping robot in the train station, Rodney's iron-filing afro and the police tape that marked the death of the asphyxiated street lamp following a farting sequence that would love to be as good as Blazing Saddles. The beauty of the design is best realised in a commute across town that reaches a peak with Fender's, "It used to be a lot worse - they had this giant hammer...oh, they brought it back!" Finally, whilst I am content to criticise the use of pop/R&B music throughout, I also have to commend the appearance of Tom Waits' Underground in amongst Britney Spears, Chingy and Houston. To hear Waits' growl being ably matched by beautifully dirty visuals is to show that Robots has some ambition to be different. It's a shame that when it lazily falls back on Robin Williams' gags, technical trickery and - thanks, Blue Sky - localised voice actors, it isn't half as interesting as when it tries to be different.
As you would expect, Robots looks terrific with rich colours, an obvious sharpness to the picture that matches the smooth lines of the stars of the film and a good reproduction of both the bright daylight of the upper world and of the dark, dank chop shop. The picture whizzes by very nicely although, close up, there is a bit of digital noise about the characters but you do have to look very close to find it.
Similarly, the 5.1 surround audio track is excellent with good use of the subwoofer as well as the rear channels to spread the sound about the room. It's plenty loud enough and is detailed enough to be able to hear even the quietest of events.
Commentary: Being a technical commentary - contributors include Tim Speltz, Lead Technical Director (Effects), James Bresnahan (Animation Supervisor) and David Esneault (Lighting Supervisor) - you might expect this to be dry and - whisper it - dull but it's a better one than that description might suggest. At it's best, they helpfully point out all of the jokes in the background, particularly in the busy train station but they are, unsurprisingly, equally adept at describing the technical limitations and innovations in the film.
Aunt Fan's Tour Of Booty (4m57s): Or Aunt Fan's Big Behind...Behind-The-Scenes Tour. The well-upholstered robot hosts a tour of Robot City's train station, which leads to an admittedly funny skit in which a silent Fender is only one of the many, many casualties in the chaos that results from a rear-ending by Aunt Fan.
The Voices Of Robots (7m29s): With animated films now making a much bigger deal of the voice talent, this is a fairly standard extra on their DVD releases. Unsurprisingly, it features interviews with Ewan MacGregor, Halle Berry and, of course, Robin Williams talking about their characters and - this is a regular comment by voiceover actors - the difficulty of inhabiting their character.
Music Video - Hero Wanted by Sarah Connor (4m04s): Superimposed over footage from Robot City is a music video for a Sarah Conner song about how it feels to be pursued by a futuristic killing machine...oh, wrong Sarah Conner. It's kind of an R&B thing although whether she has had more upgrades and enhancements than even Fender is open to question. Oh, and yes, the song is dreadful.
Discontinued Parts: These are, as the name may suggest, deleted scenes and although one might think of Pixar's outtakes, these are, instead, samples of unfinished animation resulting either from scenes that were cut or trimmed out of the final version. Available with or without a commentary from director Chris Wedge, this section includes Tim From The TV Show (2m08s), Rodney and the Rusties (4m17s) and Rodney's Visitor (1m11s).
Meet The Bots: Confused about who's who in the world of Robot City? This special feature allows the viewer to read a little more on eleven of the robots in the film. Once done, it also offers a Design Gallery of sketches and models as well as a 3D Turnaround.
The Robot Arcade: Robotic dancing being a thing of twenty or so years ago - time has, however, never quite ascertained why anyone would have felt the need to do this - where better to celebrate it again than in the extras of Robots. Featuring the bodypopping robot of the train station, who puts even the bassist in No Doubt to shame, being the only person since 1986 to be seen robot-dancing in public, this allows the little chap to show off such moves as the Oil Spill, the Sine Wave and Disco Light.
This is followed by Fender's Photo Shoot, which is a photo memory game. A bit, therefore, like Screen Test but without moving pictures, Michael Rodd or bafflingly unknown movies from the Children's Film Foundation.
Ice Age 2 Teaser (1m41s): Scrat - the creature desperately trying to hold onto an acorn - was the most annoying thing about the original Ice Age so why the makers of Ice Age 2 have decided to use him to promote their film is anyone's guess. It can only be because, much like Edna Mode (Brad Bird) in The Incredibles, Scrat is given a voice by Chris Wedge. In this, Scrat is again in possession of a nut and, again, causes chaos through his efforts. Like the Pixar teasers, one can only hope that the completed film is funnier.
Ice Age 2 Sneak Peek (2m57s): Able to show only production design sketches and work-in-progress animation, this does a nice little job of promoting Ice Age 2: The Meltdown and features interviews with co-director Carlos Saldanha, producer Lori Forte and voice talent Ray Romano (Manfred), John Leguizamo (Sid) and Denis Leary (Diego).
There is also a Coming Soon feature that includes a trailer for a Bratz animated DVD, Rock Angelz. As a word of warning, don't let any young girls see this as they'll soon develop an interest in it that exceeds that of the main feature.
I think it's safe to say that out of the three big studios producing computer-animated feature-length films, Pixar remains on top of the heap. It really just comes down to their films not being about the technology - a director like Brad Bird or John Lasseter could, you feel, work just as well with traditional hand-drawn animation and, in the case of the former, he proved just that with The Iron Giant.
Robots, Shrek 2 and Shark Tale simply couldn't exist without the technology as there's not enough of a story in the three of them combined to sustain one movie never mind three. Unlike the latest Dreamworks efforts, however, Robots is entertaining, hugely so at times, and I found myself enjoying it more than this review might make it sound. It's simply that after Ice Age, I wanted Robots to be better and although it's by no means bad and certainly not a chore to sit through - it's far too funny for that - I would have loved it had it looked the way it does but with a story as strong as Blue Sky's first film and the courage to take a little time out from the frenetic action once in a while.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 07:50:51