Chris Wedge and his cohorts at Blue Sky Studios learned a lot making their first film, Ice Age — and it shows in their sophomore film, Robots.
They may have learned from other films as well. Robots combines the visionary alternate world-building of Monsters, Inc., the flair for gadgetry and gimmickry of an old Fleishers cartoon, and most sneakily of all, the toybox nostalgia of the Toy Story movies, with cleverly worked-in toy and game references — “Operation,” Slinky, Wheelo — that will have adults grinning with recognition.
There’s also some slyly subversive social commentary reminiscent to The Incredibles’s satire of the self-esteem gospel and the culture of entitlement. Here the target is insecurity advertising, the corporate strategem of instilling feelings of inadequacy and need in order to make their product indispensable. Once-benevolent Bigweld Industries, which historically proclaimed the inspirational message, “You can shine no matter what you’re made of!” now raises the demoralizing question, “Why be YOU when you can be… NEW?” There’s even a pro-life resonance in the film’s depiction of the sinister plot to scrap obsolete members of society who’ve outlived their usefulness and are beginning to fall apart.
Robots gets off to a sparkling start with working stiff Herb Copperbottom (Stanley Tucci) ebulliently heading home to his wife for the arrival of their new baby, Rodney (voiced in adulthood by Ewan MacGregor). Unfortunately, Herb misses the delivery. That’s right — the kit has already been delivered by the time he arrives home. Of course, as his wife coyly reminds him, “making the baby is the fun part,” so they get to work.
Rodney’s home life is portrayed with the same domestic affection suggested by these and other rather innocent double-entendres; and, thanks in part to Tucci investing Rodney’s father with more depth and texture than the character has a right to, these early scenes promise a level of humanity that, unfortunately, the rest of the film never quite delivers on.
Yet the first big scene, when Rodney finally leaves home and heads off to Robot City, is a tour de force of the film’s real strong center, constant visual invention and creative energy. Rodney’s arrival in Robot City becomes a bravura set piece reminiscent of Monsters, Inc.’s climactic bedroom-door monorail chase scene… and that’s just one of a number of great action set pieces.
Despite the futuristic milieu, Robots actually has a strong retro vibe: This is very much a 1950s vision of the future. With his pastel colors and chrome and glass trim, Rodney somehow looks like an old-fashioned kitchen appliance. His father Herb literally is one: When he says he’s a dishwasher at a local diner, he really is a dishwasher.
The story, which pits our heroes against a slick corporate bully and his sinister Manchurian Candidate monster-mother, is a familiar one, but offers some great character design (kindly Mr. Bigweld resembles some benevolent titan from a stop-motion Rankin-Bass production) and terrific action sequences.
There are two main drawbacks. First, Wedge leans too much on some crude humor, especially over-the-top flatulence humor, and also an almost British proccupation with bottom jokes. Perhaps they’re trying for Shrek-style bad taste, but fart jokes are one thing when your protagonist is precisely a boorish ogre, but they’re just plain out of place here. (Anyway, I didn’t care for them even in Shrek).
The other issue is more substantial, and is the main reason that neither Blue Sky nor DreamWorks Animation can yet compete with Pixar narratively (never mind visually). They simply haven’t got the knack of created layered characters who are interesting in themselves and emotional complexities that grab the audience.
The characters in Robots are generally pleasant enough — even a tired Robin Williams doesn’t entirely ruin things, and gets a funny Singin’ in the Rain tribute — but there’s no one here that I became emotionally invested in the way I did Marlin and Nemo, or even Sully and Mike and Boo. There are a few somewhat touching moments, but on the whole it comes off clever rather than heartfelt.
Still, it’s a high grade of clever, and I enjoyed it a lot.
P.S. Robots is preceded by a very funny but tantalizingly brief preview for Ice Age 2 featuring that Blue Sky favorite, Scrat the squirrel. Thanks to improved tech, Scrat looks better than ever, but the “To be continued…” comes up all too soon.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.