‘Robots’ short on plot, long on zany fun

“Robots,” the new computer graphics animated comedy from 20th Century Fox, utilizes the same formula that “Shark Tale” screwed up so thoroughly a couple of months ago; take a human story and set it in a crazy new world. But where “Shark Tale” failed, “Robots” succeeds. “Shark Tale” relied far too heavily on pop culture references and undersea puns, but “Robots” riffs on its fantastical world in creative and entertaining ways. The story’s only so-so, but it’s still a lot of fun.

“Robots” follows the tale of Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan MacGregor), the son of a kindly dishwasher (literally). Rodney has grown up dreaming of being an inventor and following in the steps of his idol, Mr. Bigweld (Mel Brooks). Bigweld is a big, round robot that has built an empire in Robot City founded on old-fashioned values. After inventing a cute thermos-bot that washes dishes, Rodney takes it on the road and travels to Robot City to chase his dreams. When he gets there, he finds that Bigweld is nowhere to be found and his company is being run by Ratchet (Greg Kinnear). Ratchet is planning to do away with spare parts and is instead planning to sell only the more expensive upgrades. This will mean that robots in need of repair will become “outmodes” and will eventually expire and be sent to the scrap heap. The idealistic Rodney resolves to remedy the situation, along with the help of a big group of underdeveloped and forgettable side characters.

The basic story of “Robots” is simplistic and predictable. This is standard for children’s movies, but what makes these stories work are well-developed and well-written characters. “Robots” is lacking both. The characters are flat and, for the most part, uninteresting. The story of the idealistic youth trying to fix the world reads like it came straight from the cookie-cutter. The movie has a heart, but it’s a mass-produced, synthetic heart. Fortunately, the movie has enough frills to make it worth watching.

First is the impressive ensemble cast of the type that CG films always seem to draw. MacGregor’s ever-present charisma comes through strong in his vocal performance, and he gives Rodney an earnestness that makes the character endearing in spite of its lack of nuance. Big names fill out all the side roles, which are mostly interesting. The only exception is Robin Williams, whose character has almost no character and only exists to crack jokes about whatever’s going on in the movie.

The world of these robots is interesting, well-detailed and at times unbelievably bizarre. The movie is filled with a mixture of metallic colors and pastels and is always a feast for the eyes. Robot City works on Rube Goldberg type principals, and everything is done with ridiculously elaborate machinery. The rules of this robot world are well thought-out and consistent. Instead of requiring medical care as they age, the robots must either repair or upgrade themselves. As young Rodney grows up in the first scenes of the movie, he eagerly anticipates getting his new “big-boy parts” every year. This level of detail is applied to every facet of the robot world, and this attention to detail makes the world a joy to discover.

“Robots” also has a strange side. Sequences often start out feeling like a normal movie, but then the situation will rapidly spiral into sheer insanity. One scene begins with a single domino being knocked over and ends with the characters surfing on an enormous wave of dominoes. These little bouts of insanity seem out of place at first, but as the movie progresses they become increasingly more enjoyable.

“Robots,” while not great, is still quite entertaining. What it lacks in brains it makes up for in glitz and enthusiasm. It’s got a lot of solid laughs too, including the best fart joke to come out of Hollywood in the past decade. It would certainly be great for children, and will provide legitimate fun for the non-cynical adult as well.