At the sneak preview for Robots there was a bit of confusion over what group was responsible for the film, so let's start with a review of the major players in feature-length computer animation.
Rodney Copperbottom (left, voiced by Ewan McGregor) and Fender (voiced by Robin Williams) take a harrowing ride on Robot City's Crosstown Express.
Since 1995, Pixar has set the standard with films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. The studio has succeeded on a grand scale by combining state-of-the-art animation with imaginative designs, thoughtfully cast voice talent, evocative music and compelling stories. Their movies have a timeless quality. NOTE: After the upcoming Cars, Pixar will no longer be affiliated with the Disney Company. God help Disney.
Dreamworks is the company behind Antz, the two Shrek movies, Shark Tale and the upcoming Madagascar (this summer) and Wallace and Gromit (fall). The computer animation is as good as Pixar's, but their artwork isn't. Dreamworks worries less about story and more about being hip. Forget timelessness, Dreamworks desperately wants to be cool. They hire big name actors, use hot musicians for their songs and pack their movies with soon-to-be-outdated pop culture references. I find the practice terribly annoying, but most people don't. Shrek 2 was the biggest moneymaker of 2004 and even the extremely crass and tacky Shark Tale was a hit.
Finally, Blue Sky Studios at 20th Century Fox brought us Ice Age and now Robots, both energetic slapstick comedies. Clearly, they aspire to be more like Pixar than Dreamworks and good for them. Based on their output so far, however, it appears that the Blue Sky animators were the "B"-students that worked diligently while the gifted Pixar guys dazzled the class and the Dreamworks kids sat in the back of the room chewing gum and cracking wise. Both of the Blue Sky movies are enjoyable, but they pale in comparison to what the "A"-students can do.
Preceding Robots is a cartoon featuring Scrat, the hilarious critter that spent most of Ice Age frantically trying to bury a nut in the frozen tundra. He tries again here and the results are just as funny. Many animators have tried to capture the magic of the vintage Looney Tunes cartoons and the Scrat adventures are the only ones to pull it off.
Set in a mechanical world, Robots follows young inventor Rodney Copperbottom (voice of Ewan McGregor) as he leaves his small town to make it big in Robot City. But evil Madame Gasket (Jim Broadbent!) and her son Ratchet (Greg Kinnear) have taken control of master inventor Bigweld (Mel Brooks). Halle Berry plays Cappy, Ratchet's disapproving assistant. In short order, Rodney must lead new friends Fender (Robin Williams), sourpuss Crank Casey (Drew Carey), kindly Lug (Harland Williams) and the voiceless Diesel in a battle to save ordinary robots from the bad guys.
The film, directed by Ice Age's Chris Wedge, boasts a clever and well-designed robot world with a number of wonderful Rube Goldberg-like contraptions. Thankfully, pop culture references are kept to a minimum. Some of the images are spectacular, including a knockout shot of a robot surfing a wave of dominoes. I found the slapstick humor to be hit and miss, but the children in the theater, along with a number of the adults, laughed lots.
If only the story, and the characters, were stronger. The Us vs. Them screenplay exists solely as a framework for the gags, which would be fine if Pixar hadn't taught us to expect more. With only a few exceptions (Robin Williams, most notably), the characters are one-note, which would be fine if Pixar hadn't taught us to expect more. Overall, the film seems aimed more at kids than a general audience, which would be fine unless ...
In fact, that's the bottom line: Robots is a perfectly serviceable crowd-pleasing computer-animated comedy with some inspired moments. It may not be Pixar, but it sure goes down better than Dreamworks.