Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor, "Big Fish") is a budding inventor whose only goals are to help those in need and meet his idol, the masterful engineer Bigweld (Mel Brooks). On his quest, Rodney journeys into the big city where he falls for a beautiful executive (Halle Berry), meets a group of misfits who desperately need his skills and comes up against a corporate tyrant (Greg Kinnear, "Stuck on You") who tries to stop him. There's something special about these folks, though - they're all "Robots."
Director (and voice of Wonderbot) Chris Wedge ("Ice Age") surpasses his earlier film with the closest approximation of Pixar magic yet from outside of that studio. "Robots" features clever writing (screenplay by Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel, "Splash"; story by Jim McClain and Ron Mita), ingenious throwaway sight gags, in-jokes galore, good messages and cute characters. It only comes up short in the huge heart that beats beneath every Pixar outing.
The clever opening credits sequence catalogues the 'birth' of Rodney, where 'making the baby's the fun part' but requires eleven hours of labor - from both parents - wielding wrenches and screwdrivers. Rodney grows up like all kids, getting hand-me-down 'big boy parts' from assorted cousins. He's inspired when he sees Bigweld on TV giving a guided tour of Bigweld Industries and concerned when he sees his dad, Herb Copperbottom (Stanley Tucci, "Shall We Dance"), getting worn down by his job as the dishwasher at Link's Greasy Spoon. So, he fills a need by inventing Wonderbot, a flying coffee pot with multiple arms that can help his dad do his work in no time. Herb, who always wanted to be a musician rather than a lowly dishwasher, encourages Rodney to follow his dream, leaving Rivet Town for Robot City to get a job with Bigweld.
Rodney doesn't find what he expects, though. He's denied admittance to the Industries, whose gate proclaims 'You can shine no matter what you're made of,' by guard Tim (Paul Giamatti, "Sideways") in an homage to Dorothy's arrival at Oz. Rachet (Kinnear) has elbowed Bigweld out and has a new plan - spare parts, which make little money, are to be discontinued, leaving only expensive, shiny upgrades as an option. Those aging robots that cannot afford the upgrades will be swept up and sent to the mastermind, Rachet's mom Madame Gasket (Jim Broadbent, "Iris," "Moulin Rouge"), in her chop shop. The robot population is facing mechanical genocide.
Oz isn't the only film paid homage in "Robots." "A Bug's Life" is noted with its train station panhandler, whose sign 'kid pulled my wings off' is converted to 'I'm screwed' here. Visually, Madame Gasket and her fiery abode recall both "The Nightmare Before Christmas's" Oogie Boogie and "Monsters Inc.'s Roz while good guy Bigweld has the same rotundly round shape as the latter film's corporate heavy, Henry J. Waternoose III. There's also a reference to 'the force' being with Rodney (voice actor McGregor having played the young Obi-Wan) and one cannot help but note that Fender (Robin Williams), leader of the breaking-down bots, rhymes with Bender of Matt Groening's "Futurama." (Fender/Williams also does a "Singin' in the Rain" tribute as "Singin' in the Oil," one of the films few flatliners.)
Of course, "Robots" also features plenty of originality, such as Rivet Town's wind-up pigeon lady on a park bench, neighbors polishing their lawns and metal shavings covering the floor of a barbershop. Herb's boss is a walking cash register and Verizon pitchman James Earl Jones voices a telephone. There's a robot who performs 'the robot' dance and a really nifty retro reference to the old Wooly Willy toy when Rodney gets magnetized and beset by iron shavings. Toilet humor is actually funny (well, the arm fart sequence was unnecessary but it's capped by one of the film's best sight gags). Male and female restrooms are noted with a plug and socket.
The voice cast features five Oscar winners - Mel Brooks, Dianne Wiest (Mrs. Copperbottom), Robin Williams, Jim Broadbent and Halle Berry. Ewan McGregor is unrecognizable as the plucky, all-American hero. Robin Williams, doing his first animated character since 1992's Aladdin, is perfect as Fender, although he doesn't soar into the free-wheeling stratosphere of Aladdin's genie. Amanda Bynes ("What a Girl Wants") shines in her first voice work as Fender's sister Piper Pinwheeler while Berry is a nice contrast as the more sophisticated, but equally courageous Cappy (the writers failed naming the character though). Jennifer Coolidge's ("Best in Show") distinctive voice is just right for Aunt Fanny, even if the character resembles an insect more than a conceivable robot. Harland Williams ("Because of Winn-Dixie") puts an adorably mopey spin on the appropriately named Lug. Drew Carey does the vocals for Lug's counterpart, Crank Casey. The villainous mother and son duo are pitched perfectly by Broadbent, evil and gravelly, and Kinnear, sometimes tentative under mom's satanic sway.
"Robots" looks great overall, although a couple fast-paced sequences making the characters look a bit too transparent. Action is imaginative, replete with Rube Goldberg set-ups and elaborate domino falling.
Robin did not see this film.
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