Full of small, wonderful touches and big, heady ideas, the computer-animated extravaganza “Robots” is both visually dazzling and needlessly heavy-handed.
It’s an indictment on the soulless homogeneity of our image-conscious culture. (If you want to take it really seriously, even though your kids won’t, it’s about genocide.) But it’s also an opportunity for Robin Williams to be, well, Robin Williams, for the first time in an animated feature since “Aladdin” in 1992.
Among the other actors who lend their voices to the jam-packed, all-star cast: Ewan McGregor as Rodney Copperbottom, an idealistic young inventor who fixes other robots in need of repair; Greg Kinnear as Ratchet, a Machiavellian corporate bigwig; Stanley Tucci and Dianne Wiest as Rodney’s parents, who raised him modestly in tiny Rivet Town; and Halle Berry, Mel Brooks, Drew Carey, Jennifer Coolidge and Amanda Bynes as the new friends Rodney makes when he arrives in Robot City, a sort of shiny, rounded version of Manhattan.
Some sequences are utterly breathtaking, including the trip Rodney takes on the city’s elaborate public transportation system, which resembles a hybrid between a pinball machine, “Rollerball” and that “Mouse Trap” game with ramps and levers and rubber bands.
By now it’s easy to take for granted the startlingly detailed realism CGI technology can create: the lighting and shadows, the subtle contours, the human expressions. The film’s art-deco industrial design scheme suggests an Ayn Rand book brought strikingly to life, with flashes of ’50s-era futurism.
But the film from directors Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha (who also co-directed “Ice Age” in 2002) takes place in a surreal world populated entirely by robots — some of them makeshift contraptions, others sleek, high-tech machines.
The longtime head of Bigweld Industries, the rotund, beloved Bigweld (Brooks), is forced out by the ambitious, younger Ratchet. Bigweld believed you could shine no matter what material you were made of; that meant selling replacement parts to robots needing a tuneup.
Ratchet, meanwhile, is disgusted by seeing ugly, imperfect robots all around him and decides to stop selling parts in favor of offering more expensive complete makeovers.
“Why be you when you can be new?” is his mantra. And with the help of his pushy, overbearing mother (voiced by Jim Broadbent), he makes sure the streets of Robot City are rid of “outmodes,” who are swept up and destroyed in a hidden chop shop.
It’s a harrowing image, actually — sort of a robot holocaust based on appearance, wealth and social status — yet at the same time, the main point in the script from David Lindsay-Abaire and the longtime writing duo of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel is mind-numbingly facile.
That’s it? Looking and acting the same based on society’s dictates is bad and loving yourself for who you are is good? A message children should hear, for sure, but one that’s not fresh or insightful.
Younger kids won’t get any of that, of course. But they will enjoy the film’s bright colors, breakneck pace and (unfortunate) inclusion of flatulence jokes. (Truly, there’s got to be a movie out there for the whole family that doesn’t include some sort of scatological humor.)
McGregor charms with his earnestness, Kinnear is appropriately smarmy (all those years hosting “Talk Soup” on E! paid off) and Bynes brings an easy spunkiness to her role as Piper, the tomboy ’bot.
And Williams gets to do what he does best (though he’s still preferable in the rare darker role): He gets to be hyperactive on cue. His character, the dilapidated Fender, is kinda New Yorkish and kinda gay and kinda Latin. Sometimes he’s doing “Braveheart,” sometimes he’s parodying Britney Spears.
When he’s on, he’s on full-blast, and it sounds like he’s having a blast of his own. For the most part, you and your family will, too.