The name of Fender, the abrasive, cantankerous pile of bolts and metal voiced by Robin Williams in the computer-animated “Robots” (the second feature from the company that made “Ice Age”), is but one letter removed from Bender, the clanking second banana in Matt Groening’s late, lamented “Futurama,” and that’s quite appropriate, since a good deal of the picture–which centers on a commercial scheme involving replacement parts for outmoded robot models–itself seems recycled from that often-inspired TV series, as well as from earlier animated movies. “Robots” is much more extravagant in its visual effects, of course; in fact, on that level it’s fairly successful. As was the case with “Ice Age,” however, the content isn’t the equal of the visuals.
The scenario concocted by no fewer than five writers is pretty threadbare. It focuses on a typically bland hero, Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor), a naive rustic type from Rivet Town, who travels to the metropolis of Robot City in hopes of securing an inventor’s job at the huge corporation headed by Mr. Bigweld (Mel Brooks). His aim is to improve the well-being of such outmoded robot models as his doting dad Herb (Stanley Tucci), a hard-working dishwasher. But just as Rodney arrives, the firm has been taken over by the ruthless Ratchet (Greg Kinnear), whose plan is to scrap the replacement parts business altogether and focus exclusively on costlier, and far more profitable upgrades instead–where older robots have to buy completely new bodies at exorbitant prices; and Rodney’s kept out of the Bigweld headquarters by a wacky gatekeeper called Tim (Paul Giamatti), who looks rather like a refugee from an old Krofft Brothers series. Ratchet, it turns out, is acting under the pressure of his even more ghastly mother, Madame Gasket (Jim Broadbent), who runs a secret underground chop shop that collects out-of-date robots and melts them down for scrap. When Rodney learns all this, he joins forces with a passel of misfits–Fender, a motor-mouthed con-man who hustles replacement parts; Piper (Amanda Bynes), his sister; the mute Diesel, whose search for a voice box leaves him at one point sounding just like Darth Vader (James Earl Jones stops by for a cameo); Cappy (Halle Berry), a disaffected Bigweld exec turned off by Ratchet’s office practices (both professional and personal); Crank (Drew Carey), a cynical junkheap; and Aunt Fanny (Jennifer Coolidge), a maternal type with a decidedly big derriere–to derail Ratchet and Gasket’s evil schemes and restore Bigweld to his rightful position. What follows is a succession of wild, colorful action scenes that often have a Rube Goldberg-like roller-coaster effect–though despite their frantic quality they’re not really exhilarating, even when Rodney’s invention, a voiceless flying sprite called Wonderbot, is brought forward in a desperate attempt to generate some charm.
The most notable thing about “Robots” is the look of the picture, which is sporadically impressive if often cluttered. The frames are filled with detail and the robots themselves are nicely differentiated physically, if not always in personality. And the contributions of the voicetalent are at least decent. Williams’ Fender my sound as though the Aladdin genie had been transported from a lamp to a robot, but that’s to be expected, and the character certainly adds energy to the proceedings, even if his lines sound more like poor ad-libs than scripted witticisms. McGregor is a bit bland and anonymous, but that fits Rodney, and among the lesser figures Broadbent and Brooks make strong impressions. The others are okay but undistinguished. In addition to the featured performers, there are plenty of cameo appearances (in addition to Jones’s) from the likes of Jay Leno, Dan Hedaya, Stephen Tobolowsky, Harland Williams, Al Roker and Terry Bradshaw. None is especially notable .
But ultimately the script, despite the frequency of pop culture references aimed at grownups (like references to movies as varied as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” and celebrities like “Britney Gears”) and because of the all-too-frequent bouts of potty-humor pandering to the kiddies (the fact that these characters are made out of metal doesn’t preclude a spate of fart jokes) is more lame than engaging. “Robots” may be more than three times as long as an episode of “Futurama,” but it certainly doesn’t boast three times the laughs. And it never manages to engage viewers emotionally, though not for lack of trying (especially in the family sequences with Ma and Pa Copperbottom); it remains a chilly, remote sort of experience. As far as these kinds of movies go, it’s mediocre–-sporadically amusing but never hilarious, and curiously flat despite all the frantic motion. Parents and children will probably go to it in droves, as they did to “Ice Age,” they’re not likely to find it really lovable. After all, how can you really fall in love with something so mechanical?