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  • Noel Vera
    If it only had a heart Noel Vera Easily the best portions of Robots is the detailed world the filmmakers make, of a completely mechanized city gone partly to
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 24, 2005
      If it only had a heart

      Noel Vera

      Easily the best portions of "Robots" is the detailed world the
      filmmakers make, of a completely mechanized city gone partly to seed-
      -on one side "upgraded" automatons, all shiny chrome and sleek
      aerodynamic lines; on the other rust-stained appliances, full of
      second-hand parts that vaguely resemble a vision of the future
      cobbled together by some '50s Imagineer.

      You can understand the sentiment--they want to pit brand-new models
      full of integrated parts and built-in obsolescence with gadgets from
      an older period, an older philosophy, where the word 'repair' didn't
      have such a cheap air about it, and shops that fixed things (as
      opposed to electronic appliance stores that, should anything go
      wrong, refer you to the manufacturer's warranty) actually tinkered
      around with your appliance, cleaning it up and adding little
      improvements along the way. Somewhere on the way to the future the
      philosophy towards machines changed, and now it's not just expected
      but actually cheaper to just buy a new model when something--a DVD
      player, a personal computer, even a new car--breaks down.

      I think it's a terrific idea for a story, with all the potential
      drama and pathos that can be found in inanimate objects--think of
      Carlo Collodi's (pen name of Carlo Lorenzini) fairy
      tale "Pinocchio," the dark original on which Disney based his
      (bowdlerized but still powerful) animated masterpiece; think, if you
      wish for a more recent example, of Thomas Disch's "The Brave Little
      Toaster," where a group of everyday appliances journey from a
      country house to the big city, in search for their missing owner. We
      tend to anthropomorphize objects, particularly objects we have a
      fond attachment to, or feel hostile against, or even fear (see
      Steven Spielberg's "Duel," about a car menaced by a malignant truck--
      arguably his best work ever); many of these stories are expressions
      of our affection or exasperation with our mechanical kin.

      Too bad that with such potential in their premise, directors Chris
      Wedge and Carlos Saldanha confine themselves to making tinny jokes
      about oversized behinds and undersized coffee pots, wasting precious
      running time on film references ("2001" has a quick homage, and for
      some reason they even bother to allude to George Lucas' clunky mega-
      lemon, "Attack of the Clones") and roller-coaster rides that would
      probably look awesome on the IMAX screen (the ultimate destination
      for amusement-park type movies like these). The movie is incredibly
      busy, so busy that the filmmakers seem to have forgotten a few
      simple ingredients--namely, witty dialogue and characters that
      actually gain your sympathy.

      Ewan McGregor plays the hero, Rodney Copperbottom, with all the
      distinction of a Black & Decker vacuum cleaner; Greg Kinnear, who
      essays the villainous Ratchet, tries for funny and almost succeeds,
      once or twice, but the script never really lets him cut loose; Jim
      Broadbent as Madam Gasket, Ratchet's monstrous mother, growls
      impressively, but otherwise delivers a minimum number of nasty
      lines; Robin Williams, presumably hoping to repeat his success in
      Disney's "Aladdin," skitters on the thin divide between funny and
      annoying (skidding more often towards annoying than not) with his
      portrayal of Fender, Rodney's comic sidekick; Halle Berry's name can
      be found in the opening credits, but for the life of me, I can't
      distinguish her voice from the general blandness (she'd make the
      perfect computer voice for a remake of "2001"). The rest of the
      cast, a terrific gallery of character actors from Paul Giamatti to
      Dan Hedaya to Stanley Tucci to Dianne Wiest, are, for all intents
      and purposes, largely relegated to the junk heap (well, Wiest as the
      awesomely proportioned Aunt Fanny does do one funny fart joke).

      Wedge and Saldanha and writers Jim McClain and John Mita had
      previously done "Ice Age," another animated feature that felt rather
      cool to the touch, more a series of jokes and busy slapstick than
      anything actually interesting (though they did have a running gag--a
      prehistoric squirrel with a mania for a prehistoric acorn--that had
      me rooting for the little critter). If this picture has
      more "heart," that would probably be due to Lowell Ganz and Babaloo
      Mandel, director Ron Howard's favorite scriptwriters, and the people
      responsible for the sticky-sweet "Parenthood," among others. Ganz
      and Mandel between them have written about fifteen screenplays, and
      produced perhaps one decent picture-- "Splash"--back when Howard was
      still capable of balancing sentiment with a smart sense of humor;
      nowadays, their idea of moving would be to deliver the equivalent of
      industrial-strength laxative to their audiences ("Forget Paris;" "A
      League of Their Own"). Their participation in this particular
      production is pointedly unwelcome.

      As one critic put it, when it comes to animation there's Pixar, the
      Japanese, and the rest. Much as I'm not a fan of Pixar, I will admit
      that they do know how to tell a story--to take you up with a zippy
      start, introduce you to characters that appeal to and interest you,
      then go on to predicaments that are part funny, part dramatic, with
      just a whisper of a moral for some depth.

      The Japanese, however, play a far more sophisticated game--
      Shinichiro Watanabe with his fatalistic, beyond-cool "Cowboy Bebop,"
      focusing on a group of glamorous losers and their pathetic notions
      of what constitutes living; Mamoru Oshii with his "Ghost in the
      Shell" and "Innocence," delving into philosophical questions on the
      nature of intelligence; Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, with films
      like "Grave of the Fireflies" and "Princess Mononoke" depicting,
      respectively, the suffering of children in wartime and the struggle
      between nature and industrialization--and that's just skimming the
      surface. Hollywood, in this case 20th Century Fox's animation shop
      Blue Sky Studios, for all its cutting-edge 3-D computer technology
      seems mired in the Pleistocenic mindset that animation is strictly
      for kids, and should avoid uncomfortable or incomprehensible topics
      like fatalism, artificial intelligence, industrialization, and war,
      and the kind of storytelling that they inspire. Rather insulting
      assumption to make, when you think on it, about us and our kids.

      Robin Williams, whose manic humor has saved many a doubtful picture
      but who seems to strangely lack either mania or humor to save this
      one has the definitive word on the subject when he says "it's a new
      thing, a mix of jazz and funk--call it junk."

      (First published 3/18/05)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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