'Robots': A Well-Oiled Machine

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 11, 2005

PARENTS watching "Robots" are going to love the notion that babies can be outfitted with volume control buttons. This adult joke will surely be lost on the kids in the audience. But they'll be too busy enjoying the rest of this bright computer-animated movie, which takes them into a fantasy world of robots of every shape and size.

In this movie, "having a baby" means ordering an assembly kit full of tin plates, springs and other doodads, and putting together your new child yourself. That's exactly what robot mom-to-be Mrs. Copperbottom (voice of Dianne Wiest) and her husband (Stanley Tucci) do for their new creation, Rodney.

"Only 12 hours of labor," sighs Mrs. C, as they admire their metallic newborn. "But it was worth it."

Yes, it was, it turns out. Rodney (voice of Crawford Wilson and, later, Ewan McGregor) grows up to be a brave, resourceful hero, a budding inventor with aspirations to put together new robots out of old parts. His first invention is Wonderbot, a hovering device with eyes and hands that can wash, dry and put away dishes many times faster than his father, who had himself refitted to be a dishwasher.

Determined to make something of himself, Rodney heads for Robot City.

"If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere," says a red, tin hustler named Fender (Robin Williams). "But if you can't, join the club."

But in this ever-modernizing world, reconditioned robots -- known as outmodes -- are rapidly obsolete. Rodney's dream to make new life out of old junk puts him at moral odds with the dastardly industrialist-controller Phineas T. Ratchet (Greg Kinnear), who plans to turn everyone into a revamped and, of course, expensive model. His company slogan is unequivocal: "Why be you when you can be new?" (A metaphor for our materialistic world? Oh, surely not.)

"Robots," directed by Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha, moves along at an entertaining, if increasingly familiar clip. Following the lead of such other computer-animated hits as "Shrek," "Monsters, Inc." and "Ice Age," it goes through all the requisite motions. That means, for instance, rolling out every conceivable pun, verbal or visual, to do with its subject. ("My dream," declares one robot student in a school yearbook, "is to end world rust.")

It also means taking us on vicarious thrill rides whenever possible. Rodney and Fender (who becomes his guide) take their share of uphill-and-down-dale helter-skelter rides through Robot City's automated landscape.

And there are the always dependable one-liners from Williams.

"Inside you is a model waiting to throw up," he chatters manically, as Fender takes feverish snapshots of Rodney, trying to con him into paying big money for a photograph. Fender even does a "Singin' in the Rain" routine, except it's a more robotic theme: "Ahm singin' in da oil."

The comedian's jillionth appearance in an animated feature completes the feeling of sameness and familiarity, for sure. But it also amounts to dependability for audiences simply looking for easy entertainment and some neat-looking robots along the way.

ROBOTS (PG, 91 minutes) -- Contains some slightly risque sexual humor and bathroom gags. Area theaters.

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