Better check again. This animated feature has just about every pounding, clanking, or squeaking mechanism imaginable, but nothing in the shape of a heart. What it’s mostly got going for it is an extraordinary look, and that look is undeniably a humdinger. This movie’s visual style is so appealing you can’t gobble up the screen fast enough.
In fact, the time has come for every theatergoer in America to stand up and admit that we are living in a golden age of movie visuals. Live-action movies show more detail and care in sets and costumes than was ever possible before, and can generate a pungent sense of atmosphere. While the old black-and-whites have their mysterious allure, in terms of detail they’re often bare as theater stages. Movies so commonly attain visual perfection these days that we’re in danger of taking it for granted. And ever since the advent of computer graphics, animated films are so richly colored and textured that they feel like the best of dreams.
All this is undeniably true in the case of Robots, where the look is the nostalgic one of the tin windup toys made in the 1930s. It’s interesting that that’s the kind of look we now long for; in a world where stores are filled with plastic items inside plastic packages, where everything looks exactly like its brother, something that’s made of dented, scuffed metal has a powerful appeal. Something that looks humble and one-of-a-kind now exudes a charm that our grandparents would never understand.
Yet despite the visual achievement, the film is essentially cold. It feels like the writers and director picked out a few Pixar movies (Toy Story, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo) and took them apart frame by frame, trying to figure out the formula. First they knew they needed an inspiring message so, spin the dial, how about “Believe in yourself”?
Thus we have young Rodney Copperbottom (voiced by Ewan MacGregor), a humble kid whose dad is a dishwasher (literally), and who invents a whiz-bang contraption that resembles an old metal percolator. Rodney is determined to take his invention to Robot City and show it to Bigweld (voice of Mel Brooks), a big wheel (or, rather, big sphere) whose motto is “You can shine no matter what you’re made of.”
But when Rodney arrives in Robot City he finds that Bigweld is somehow missing, and the corporation has been taken over by a sleek, malevolent robot named Ratchet (voice of Greg Kinnear). Bigweld’s motto is missing, too; Ratchet has chiseled it off the main gate and replaced it with “Why be you when you can be new?” Instead of robots keeping themselves in repair with replacement parts, Ratchet wants them to pay bigger bucks for whole-body “upgrades,” mass-produced elements in glossy steel that look all alike and look dauntingly perfect. The raw material for upgrades is old robots, “outmodes,” swept off the street and dumped into a furnace far below street level.
Does Rodney meet a loveable gang of misfit “outmodes”? Do they team up to save the day? Do they have many a narrow scrape? Does Robin Williams voice a character that the movie’s p.r. describes as getting into “off-the-charts antics”? Are there inspiring speeches? Are there potty jokes? Are there really pretty disgusting potty jokes, that make a packed audience of children and adults go “Ewwww”? Is the concept “Don’t give up on your dreams” hammered into the ground? Is there a spunky girl? Is there a glamorous girl? Is there a harrowing chase sequence? Is there a tacked-on framing story to give a showcase for lots of father-son hugging? Is this a movie you think you’ve seen before somewhere?
Not that these elements necessarily result in a bad movie (well, you can keep the potty jokes and the Williams “antics”), but in this case there’s a powerful sensation that it was all be put together with a slide rule and a stopwatch. Nothing seems genuine or sincere. The characters don’t have any inner life. They’ve been pulled off the shelf and wound up like automotons. This is a calculated kind of storytelling, calculated to come up with the exact formula that will milk the most money from moviegoers, but that very calculation is what ultimately defeats the film.
When a story that emerges organically from the personalities and situations proposed, it has an inner wellspring of energy and delight. It breathes freely. A story that is schemed, rather than spun, is airless. Though people will savor the images here, I don’t think they’ll find themselves loving this movie. It’s far too true that all the characters are robots.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.