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20th Century Fox presents
Robots (2005)

"You can shine, no matter what you're made of!" 
- Mr. Bigweld (Mel Brooks)

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: September 26, 2005

Stars: Ewan McGregor, Halle Berry, Greg Kinnear, Mel Brooks, Amanda Bynes, Drew Carey, Robin Williams
Director: Chris Wedge

MPAA Rating: PG for some brief language and suggestive humor
Run Time: 01h:29m:39s
Release Date: September 27, 2005
UPC: 024543193913
Genre: animation

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- C+AA- A-

DVD Review

The transformation of animation by computer technology in the last decade or so has been nothing short of astonishing; at the highest levels, kids' entertainment today looks ravishing and spectacular, providing the images to keep up with children who are bombarded with visual stimuli all through the day. But storytelling hasn't changed much, even with the millennia; like a printing press or a motion picture camera, as an entertainment mechanism, a computer is merely a means to an end. Which brings us to Robots, a movie that's technically accomplished and full of some remarkable sequences, the sort of stuff that only recently was unimaginable; I'm sorry to report, though, that the narrative skills of our friends at Blue Sky Studios aren't quite on par with their technological prowess, making for a film that's stimulating in the moment but pretty forgettable.

Our hero is Rodney Copperbottom, small-town robot who wants to make it to the top of the heap in the big town. He leaves behind his mother and father and their middle-class robot life for greater glory in Robot City, taking to heart the television implorings that if you can build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. Rodney is entranced by Mr. Bigweld, a jolly CEO with a weekly television show, very much in the mode of Walt Disney; Rodney has fashioned a slick new invention to help out around the house, and is sure that Bigweld will want to see him ASAP.

Alas, the country robot is soon disillusioned, and finds that the Bigweld TV persona is just for show—the company has been hijacked by the evil Ratchet, who has no use for improving what exists; he wants to get out of the low-margin parts business, and into selling nothing but new merchandise. Rodney teams up with the inevitable band of merry misfits to take on the evil empire; hijinks ensue.

Whether the story seems classically contoured or phoned in may depend on how old you are; but the problems begin, really with the premise, and with the title. There's nothing cuddly about robots; not to get all Josh Baskin on you, but what's fun about that? We're in a fantastical alternate universe of anthropomorphized robots, which makes for some great visuals, but also means that we don't know what the rules of this world are, and there's a rather arbitrary quality to a lot of what goes on. Similarly, given the premise, there's a sameness to all the characters, variations on a single, limited theme—it's as if Dorothy went to Oz and the three friends she made on her journey were the Tin Man, the Tin Man and the Tin Man.

The central premise of the plot—the battle for the future of Bigweld Industries—has all the fascination for children of a proxy battle at an annual stockholders' meeting. It is true that, in design terms, there's a tremendous amount here to admire, especially when it comes to the functionality of the characters. Rodney's father, for instance, washes dishes at a diner, and his torso is literally a dishwasher; his boss, forever with an eye on the bottom line, is a walking, talking cash register. The animators have taken design elements from the sleekest toys, machines and home appliances of the last seventy-five years; it's almost stuff for the adults to gasp at more than the kids, and explaining the coolness of some of these things to children has all the fun of trying to corral a bunch of grade schoolers at an exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt. They'll be interested for a minute, but then will be ready to dash off someplace else, and can't we go get ice cream now? You promised.

The comparison to Pixar pictures is probably inevitable, and Robots really doesn't rival their best work. There is some good voice-over work here, though; my favorite no doubt is Jim Broadbent, in a madly cackling falsetto as Madame Gasket, the Mme. DeFarge of Robot City. Some other stuff is a little too obvious, as well; the musical score is frequently right on the nose with the emotions being articulated, and the script displays a 10-year-old's fondness for frequent fart jokes. I wish the film were better, and had a plot line as rigorously worked out as the software program used to produce its images; ultimately, though, nobody wants to snuggle up with a robot.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: A splendid, pristine transfer, with deep, rich, consistent colors. 

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0French, Spanishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Occasionally the mix seems to be from the loud-is-good-AND-LOUDER-IS-BETTER school, resulting in a metallic, robotic cacophony; these are design elements, though, and the transfer to DVD has been done reasonably artfully.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
7 Other Trailer(s) featuring Robots soundtrack, Brat2Rock Angel 2, Ferngully (Special Edition), Strawberry Shortcake, Garfield, Malcolm in the Middle, Ice Age 2
3 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
4 Featurette(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by Chris Wedge, William Joyce (track one); Tim Speltz, Michael Eringis, Kevin Thomason, Robert Cardone, James Bresnahan, Matthew D. Simmons, David Esneault (track two)
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. character design galleries
  2. games
  3. Xbox video game demo
  4. anti-piracy PSA
Extras Review: I was fortunate enough to attend a press event at Blue Sky Studios, in Westchester County, NY, where the film was made, and came away with an even stronger appreciation of the sophisticated technical elements and old-fashioned dedication and perseverance that went in to the making of Robots. Carl Ludwig, Blue Sky's founder, was especially eloquent on his firm's use of light, their signature look; it makes, if not quite for photorealism, for some extraordinarily convincing and evocative images. The world of Robots had to be built from the ground up, so to speak; the artisans labored diligently for the feel that we're on a location, not just a hard drive, and their work is in many respects the best thing about the movie. That care and precision is, unsurprisingly, very much reflected in the ample package of extras on this DVD.

Director Chris Wedge and William Joyce, sort of the eminence grise of the project, provide a commentary track going over the history of the film's evolution; for good and for ill, it's no shock that they talk about the concept and look coming before the story, and now and again you get the sense that they're almost hypnotized by the technology, clouding their story judgment. Nevertheless, they're both nice, personable and chatty, as is the army of technicians on the second track—a full house of animators, designers and editors walk us through a lot of the process, with a particular emphasis on keeping the characters from looking too scary.

Aunt Fanny's Tour of Booty (05m:11s) is a newly produced short reprising a favorite character from the feature, voiced by Jennifer Coolidge, and baby got back. An original test (02m:02s) for studio consumption has its charms, and also comes with optional commentary by Wedge and co-director Carlos Saldanha. Even more informative are three deleted scenes, also with optional director commentary; they're in various stages of production—one is little more than storyboards and voices—and provides a great look at the process.

You Can Shine, No Matter What You're Made Of (18m:13s) is a fairly standard making-of piece with the Blue Sky folks, shot in their offices with beautiful downtown White Plains in the background. A look (05m:56s) at the contributions of the performance troupe Blue Man Group, especially to the sounds of Robot City, shows the virtues of collaboration, with the mutual admiration of the performers, Wedge, and composer John Powell. You'll also find a tour of Blue Sky and an inside look at the studio's next release, Ice Age 2.

Under the heading Meet the Bots is fascinating stuff on 11 of the film's principal characters, with design galleries, 3-D turnarounds, and looks at the voice-over actors for each. No coins or tokens are necessary for the Robot Arcade, where you can play three games: you can make a Robot Dance, play Fender Photo Shoot, a memory game, and make your own with Invent a Bot. If you're properly equipped, you can also check out a demo of the film's Xbox video game; and I couldn't make good on the promise of DVD-ROM content on my PowerBook, so if you figure that one out, let me know.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

Robots is a superlative technical achievement, but there's not much warmth or emotion or resonance to it. It's an animated picture to gawk at, but not really to love; the ample extras on this DVD get at the high level of technological craft employed to make the film, but there just isn't enough of a heartbeat under all that metal to make this one a favorite.


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