Computer animators must be scratching their heads these days trying to come up with new worlds to conjure. Toys are played out. Water's running dry, especially after Shark Tale. And fairy tales Ã la Shrek have reached, if not The End, then at least some kind of chapter break. What's left ' something cute and cuddly, but not that cute and cuddly? Well, how about robots? From the folks who brought us Ice Age, Robots imagines a world consisting entirely of these mechanical critters. Even the birds are wind-up toys. And a fire hydrant, approached by a robot that looks a lot like a dog, says in what is presumably a simulated voice, 'Don't even think about it.'
Drawing inspiration from such 20th-century machines as vacuum cleaners and outboard motors, Robots revels in the pre-digital art of mechanical engineering ' all that inside-a-watch meshing of gears and coiling of springs. Robot City, where our hero, a young inventor named Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor), seeks his fortune, is like the World of Tomorrow as conceived by the World of Yesterday. It's what you'd have gotten if you'd handed Rube Goldberg an Erector set and told him to let his imagination run wild. The city's public transportation system is a toyland marvel unto itself, evoking such baby-boomer touchstones as Mousetrap and Hot Wheels.
Robots is so imaginative you almost don't notice there isn't much of a story. Or that the jokes seem a little manufactured. Rodney's dream has always been to work for Bigweld (Mel Brooks), a Walt Disney-like guru whose motto is 'See a Need, Fill a Need.' But when the youngster literally drops in on the company's headquarters, he discovers that Bigweld has been replaced by Ratchet (Greg Kinnear), a corporatist with a plan for maximizing profits. Those robots who can afford them will get upgrades. Those who can't will be tossed on the scrap heap. Which puts Rodney in a precarious position when he falls in with Fender (Robin Williams), a robot with more than one screw loose.
This is the first voice work Williams has done since Aladdin, and you can sense him rubbing that genie's lamp again, trying to work up some magic. But Fender doesn't have the shape-shifting powers that allowed Williams to tap his free-associative genius in Aladdin. And there's a strain to the performance, just as there's a strain to the whole movie. Animators have become so determined to entertain us that they won't let up for a second. When the material's there, as in The Incredibles, you don't mind riding on a runaway roller-coaster. When it's not, you just wish the thing would stop. Kids may find these computerized rivets riveting. I thought they could use an oil change.