Robots is a computer-animated movie that capitalizes on our mysterious fascination with ball bearings, dominoes, and Rube Goldberg devices. The whole thing is like a 1920’s Worlds Fair built out of an Erector Set in the bedroom of your dreams. I didn’t know whether I wanted to watch the movie or play with it.
Mr. and Mrs. Copperbottom are having a baby. That means he’s delivered to their doorstep in a box, some assembly required. Dad scratches his head at the instructions. "Don’t worry," says his wife, "making a baby is the fun part."
Dad is a simple dishwashing robot. As little Rodney grows up, the family can only afford spare parts for his upgrades. Then one night, Rodney is sitting on his Dad’s lap, watching TV. On the screen comes Big Weld, voiced by Mel Brooks, the convivial, spherical master of Robot City. He tells the audience, "Whatever you’re made of, you can shine!" Soon, Rodney’s on his way to Robot City to become an inventor.
Big Weld’s factory is fabled always to be open to new ideas. But when Rodney gets there, the door is slammed in his face by a little doorkeeper out of The Wizard of Oz. (In case you miss the reference, the Tin Woodsman himself makes an appearance). The company is now really being run by a slick corporate devil named Ratchet, voiced by Greg Kinnear. He wants to stop the production of spare parts, so everyone will have to buy his expensive upgrades. His slogan is "Why be you, when you can be new?"
Rounding out the cast are the outmoded models, destined for the scrapheap unless Rodney can rally them. There’s a comic sidekick named Fender, breathed into life by Robin Williams. The rest could use some culling. And Rodney himself, voiced by the ever-sincere Ewan MacGregor, is a milquetoast.
The inspiration for the robots had to be ’50s appliances. But the pervading influence is Lucas/Spielberg. Director Chris Wedge and Lucas are both influenced by Populux design. And they are using the same generation of software to render clean, painted metal under a bright blue sky. There’s even the conveyor belt scene from Attack of the Clones. What we’re really seeing is not homage, but the limitations of men playing with the same toys.
I have a blender that was made in the ’50s. The thing weighs about ten pounds. If it broke, you repaired it. Today, we’d buy a new one for twenty bucks. Robots gets it wrong. The problem isn’t that no one can afford the upgrades; it’s that the upgrades are cheap and disposable. The movie should have shown us that our shiny new emperors have no clothes.
All said and done, what we have here is a passable matinee with the family. The PG jokes sail right over little heads. Example: Rodney is addressing a group of robots in need of repair. He calls out, "Who wants to get fixed?" Everybody raises his hand — except for the robot dog, who whines and backs away.