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A Clockwork Lemon

'Robots' Creates a Fantastic Setting, Then Fills It With Insipid Characters

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 11, 2005; Page C01

I have seen the future and it clanks.

That's because it's made of nuts and bolts, belts and links, gizmos and gewgaws, pins and screws, all bathed in a soothing lube of WD-40 or possibly simple lithium grease. That's the world of "Robots," a kids' movie that should delight everyone except the screwdriver-challenged or the story-nostalgic.

As a piece of production design, "Robots" is the aces. It begins with a delirious concept: a human-free world of machines, but not so much a Tomorrowland as a Yesterdayland, specifically a 1939land. In other words, the machines haven't descended from the machines of today, with their bland plastic hulls, their nanocircuitry and digitalization, their mysterious software.

Fender, right, exemplifies the throwback style of robot embraced by computer animator Chris Wedge as he designed his dynamic "Robots." (Blue Sky Studios)

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Rather, "Robots" -- the movie offers no cosmology but simply begins in medias res -- celebrates the machine as device, as junk. Its central, unexamined premise is something like this: All life has descended from a Supreme Being who has a strange resemblance to the Tin Man. Yes, that Tin Man, steam-driven, with a funnel for a hat and a riveted jaw and, alas, no heart; it seems he created the world in six days, saw that it was good, and created everything else on the seventh: that is, more Tin Men. More and more Tin Men, and as they replicated, they deviated, they specialized, they mutated until the world of "Robots" was birthed, and you could say, sincerely, "I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."

Thus the ever-fascinating spectacle of "Robots" as created by the computer wizard Chris Wedge of "Ice Age" fame: a mechanical universe rooted firmly in the pre-computerized engineering of 1939 (when "The Wizard of Oz" came out). Steam seems to be the power modality, and hydraulics still the principle of movement. Lubrication is the essence of life, oil the elixir; nothing like pouring a nice cocktail of petrochemical extract to end the day, and sitting around drinking it neat or on the rocks with some of your fellow chitty-chitty-bang-bangers. The Little Engine That Could would be right at home in this land of anthropomorphized machinery, as would the mechanical rabbit from any greyhound track. This is the somewhere, over the rainbow, where even the humblest can opener has a soul, wishes, hopes and dreams, and a paint job, usually peeling.

There's so much to see in "Robots" and plenty of time to see it, because the story won't preoccupy you and the characters have the personalities of toasters. Cleverness, for its own sake, is still cleverness: Perhaps the dizziest ride in the film takes place when our hero Rodney first gets to the Big Town -- Robot City, this Gotham is called -- and steps aboard a public transportation system that appears to be based on a pinball machine fused with a Tilt-a-Whirl. It's all spinning gears, spronging arms, stunning feats of timing and flying, as Rodney and his new pal Fender spin through the air in some kind of ball-like vehicle that bounces, plunges, is captured as it hurtles through guts of gears and cams, slides and chutes, and finally comes to rest, perfectly captured, at its destination.

The ingenuity goes on and on: Every machine is a fantabulation of valves and pipes and treads, with magical mechanical possibilities. One fellow is part dishwashing machine; there's a street sweeper that looks like a giant threshing machine crossed with a Sherman tank. There's even a hellish chamber where worn-out machines are sent to die. It's one of those conveyor belt-dominated plants where the tin elderly are disposed of in the maw of a furnace spewing orange tendrils of napalm. Wahhhhhh. It was scary. Me want mama's bosom in which to hide, but my, the strange woman sitting next to me got soooo huffy! Like, where's the love?

Anyhow, as miraculous as the setting is and the realization of Wedge's vision, the story fails to really engage on any level save the kinetic.

The narrative seems ripped not from L. Frank Baum but from Case No. 243-A/II at Harvard Business School. The issues in play are Detroit-style planned obsolescence vs. Havana-style perpetual repair. Naturally Big Business prefers the previous, for the new upgrade units increase profits; naturally the girl and boy common-man bots prefer the latter, because they want to retain their essential identities, even if they're washing machines.

Into this little-guy/big-biz malaise comes Rodney, a dreamer from the sticks (way out in Rivet Town). He's come to the big city because he feels some powerful need: Gotta invent, gotta invent. But the kid thinks it'll be easy. You just go to Mr. Big Weld's plant and he makes you a star. What he doesn't realize is that Big Weld has retired and the evil Phineas T. Ratchet has taken over and is pushing the planned-obsolescence campaign forward. If he has his way, all the bots will be like new model cars, replaced every year.

Okay, let's take a deep breath now. Are we really watching a movie about can openers with souls who worry about going to can opener retirement villages and living on can opener social security? Yes, it appears we are, and if it could be worse, it could be better.

For one thing, see one machine and maybe you've seen them all. Wedge and his crew of technicals labor mightily to give each pile of nuts and bolts a distinct personality, style of movement, and physical identity, but it all comes up pretty much a wash. The actors don't really help keep the parts in their separate bins. Rodney is read in too high a pitch by Ewan McGregor, his girlfriend by Halle Berry, the evil industrialist by Greg Kinnear. In lesser parts are Mel Brooks, Drew Carey and Amanda Bynes. All fail to register. Only Robin Williams, as Fender, makes an impression, because his line readings are so Robin-Williamsesque, in that patented stream-of-consciousness methodology. He's always funny, always outrageous, always Robin Williams.

And he's the only human thing in "Robots."

Robots (95 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for some suggestive humor.

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