Robots is the most beautiful computer-animated film Hollywood's produced to date. It really is a treat to look at. Directors Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha have gone for a pleasingly retro visual style inspired by 1950s America - by its architecture and its cars, by the comics and magazines of the period, by low budget sci-fi movies and by the work of cartoonist Rube Goldberg, who used to come up with madcap inventions. He would certainly have approved of Robot City's unique public transport system, which involves firing passengers across town with a giant hammer.
The plot also shares the gee-whiz sensibility of 1950s movies. It's about a country boy who leaves mom and pop behind to seek his fortune in the big, bad city. In this case, the country boy is a country bot, who lives in a world inhabited solely by robots. Our hero, Rodney Copperbottom (voiced by Ewan McGregor) is a young inventor. He's put together a clever little dishwashing gadget and he thinks he might be able to sell it to his idol, Mr Bigweld (Mel Brooks), a kindly old tycoon whose company headquarters is in Robot City. However, after arriving in the teeming metropolis, Rodney learns that Mr Bigweld has had to step down after a corporate coup and he's since disappeared. His replacement, the slimy Ratchet (Greg Kinnear) wastes no time in showing Rodney the door.
Disillusioned, the young inventor falls in with racally Fender (Robin Williams) and his gang, the only droids in the big city who'll have anything to do with him. He's thinking about giving up on his dreams and heading back home when, by chance, he discovers what Ratchet has planned for Robot City. The weaselly executive is going to cease production of replacement parts, forcing ageing robots to pay extortionate prices for his expensive upgrades. Those who can't afford the shiny new parts will become obsolete and will be sent to the city's chop shop... which just happens to be run by Ratchet's demented mother, Mrs Gasket (Jim Broadbent). The only one who could put a stop to this wicked plot is old Mr Bigweld so Rodney and his new friends set out to find him.
Rodney is voiced with an American accent and a proper helping of gee-whiz enthusiasm by Ewan McGregor, who incidentally provides the lead voice for another computer-animated film currently in cinemas, Valiant. Halle Berry plays Cappy, a sexy executive who helps Rodney, while Greg Kinnear and Jim Broadbent make suitably hissable villains. Of course, the star you'll most likely have come to hear is Robin Williams, who's making his first animated film since his triumph in 1992's Aladdin. Lest we forget, that was the film that started the ball rolling on celebrity voices in animated movies. They were unknown before and they've been compulsory ever since. Williams steals the film, as expected. Don't expect the second coming of the Genie - he has less room to improvise here - but he's still great fun. Other contributors include Paul Giamatti, Dianne Wiest and Stanley Tucci.
We lucky Brits also get to listen to Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles and Pop Idol presenter Cat Deeley. Yes, Fox Animation have decided to follow the example Dreamworks set with Shrek 2 and Shark Tale and re-dub minor parts with our own celebrities. Thankfully, they haven't done it as ham-fistedly as Dreamworks did with Shrek 2 - where an obvious Joan Rivers lookalike was dubbed over by a British TV presenter - but the accents still stick out and the point of doing this continues to elude me. Will anyone really be more inclined to watch Robots because Chris Moyles is in it? When the DVD is released and you have the choice to import or buy British, ask yourself if you want to support this annoying trend.
The script for Robots is by one of Hollywood's more reliable comedy writing teams - Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Splash, Parenthood, City Slickers) - and it's as witty as you'd expect from them, if occasionally a touch scatterbrained. It sets up a romantic triangle between Rodney, Cappy and Fender's punky sister (Amanda Bynes) and then forgets about it. This may be the first film in which the comic relief gets the girl and the hero doesn't! The screenplay must also set some sort of record for jokes about bottoms. There are jokes about the sizes of bottoms, about bottoms falling off and, of course, about the noises bottoms make. One particular scene is destined for the fart joke hall of fame, where it will sit proudly alongside gags from Blazing Saddles and The Nutty Professor.
Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha's previous animated film was Ice Age and Robots is a major step forward for them. Ice Age had moments of brilliance - remember plucky little Scrat and his acorn? - but they were too few and far between and the film served its pedestrian storyline too slavishly. Robots' story is a big improvement and, more importantly, it allows more room for Wedge and Saldanha's whimsical spirit to take over. Happily, the directors are much bolder this time around. The story is put on hold for long stretches as they take us on wild flights of fancy, like the rollercoaster trip through the city, or as they reel off strings of lovely little sight gags.
For visual comedy, Robots rivals Pixar's work. It's endlessly, tirelessly inventive and I found myself developing a real affection for it. The Incredibles may be smarter and Shrek 2 may have more big laughs but somehow I think the film I'll be watching over and over on DVD is Robots. I can't wait to see what Wedge and Saldanha will come up with next. After years of domination by Pixar and Dreamworks, Hollywood computer animation is now no longer a two-horse race.