Blue Sky Studios has a tendency to make three different kinds of animated films: The first category is the visually impressive features that sadly feel all too familiar and safe in terms of story and characters (such was the case with the first Ice Age film). The second category is the cheap cash-grabs that primarily consist of the small army of Ice Age sequels. And the third category is The Peanuts Movie, which is so far the only Blue Sky Studios film that I feel is a genuinely wonderful animated treat.
2005’s Robots falls into the first category.
I don’t wish to sound too hard on Blue Sky’s non-Peanuts related works, since some of them – including Robots – are enjoyable enough. It’s just that the studio is all too conservative when it comes to developing their stories and fleshing out their characters. The Studio’s first feature, Ice Age, was so straightforward and by-the-books that it could be considered the most “adequate” animated film ever. Not bad, but nothing special or particularly memorable either. Their follow-up feature, Robots, isn’t too far behind in the adequate department, with some unique ideas for its entirely robot world being drowned in generic plotting.
Robots begins with the “birth” of Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor), whose parents put him together after he is literally delivered to their home. As he gets older, Rodney’s parents can only afford to get their son hand-me-down spare parts from his relatives. This disappoints Rodney, but he doesn’t complain too much, since he knows his parents are trying their best with what they have (his father is a dishwasher…in the most literal sense).
Rodney’s family – as well as a good portion of the robot population – idolize a robot named Bigweld (Mel Brooks), a Walt Disney-esque archetype (complete with his own TV series a la Wonderful World of Disney) who runs the robot world’s leading company in spare part and upgrade manufacturing.
Bigweld welcomes any inventor and creative idea to give them a chance to shine, so Rodney sets out to become an inventor in the same vein as Bigweld. Rodney succeeds in creating a tiny robot called “Wonder Bot” to help his dad at his job. But the Wonder Bot accidentally causes some mayhem at the job site, leaving Rodney’s father in debt and humiliating Rodney himself. Though with some encouragement from his parents, Rodney decides to follow through with his dream and present the Wonder Bot to Bigweld in his place of business in Robot City.
Does the plot sound familiar so far? If it does, it’s because it’s the plot to the vast majority of animated movies since they made the jump to CG. From the setup to the message to the cardboard, wide-eyed hero, Robots’ plot is as textbook as it gets.
That’s not to say that there isn’t fun to be had, however, as Rodney meets a few enjoyable characters in Robot City, the best of which being Fender (the late, great Robin Williams), who serves as a great comic foil. A duo of villains – Ratchet (Greg Kinnear) has taken over Bigweld’s company in the midst of Bigweld’s disappearance from the public eye, as part of a plot concocted by his mother, Madame Gasket (Jim Broadbent) to take over Robot City and destroy every obsolete robot to boost her scrapyard business – also provide some laughs. Bigweld himself also gets some good moments to shine.
Unfortunately, other characters feel unnecessary and tacked on, which is the case for Fender’s robot buddies (of which there are a few too many). And Rodney’s love interest, a business woman loyal to Bigweld named Cappy (Halle Berry) feels like a laughably obligatory addition. She really serves no greater purpose than for Rodney to have a love interest, because that’s what movies do. She’s never even given any time for her character or her relationship with Rodney to develop properly. The movie would work just fine without her.
On the plus side, the world of the film is both visually pleasing and pretty creative. The robot designs are all varied and different, yet they all mesh together cohesively and are fun to look at. Many of the environments are appealing, and a good dose of action set pieces take advantage of the film’s mechanical nature. It’s just a fun movie to look at and observe.
Of course, this also goes back to the film’s biggest flaw; its utter reliance on the animated cliches of its day. Back in 2005, it seemed like every animated film not made by Pixar was trying to be both Toy Story and Shrek, and that’s very much the case here. The way the film’s world is introduced, and the parade of puns and gags relating to said world in the early moments of the film, can feel a bit desperate in trying to show how creative the world is. Toy Story seemed to establish the “themed” animated film sub-genre with its “world of toys” theme, and it’s all too obvious that Robots is trying to play catch up. It even squeezes in the obligatory innuendos and winks towards the adult audience that so many animated films forced on themselves in Shrek’s wake.
With all this said, Robots is a fun movie. It’s just not one that will warrant repeated viewings. Kids would probably enjoy it, and adults may enjoy looking at it when viewing it for the first time. But while the world is visually lively and Robin Williams’ vocals give the film some great energy (I would not be surprised if I found out a good deal of his lines were ad-libbed), the movie is just too formulaic to stand on its own two feet. The bland main character, excess of unnecessary characters, predictable plot and phoned-in “follow your dreams” message feel too, well, mechanical.