"Robots," the new animated kids' feature from 20th Century Fox, is cute, clangy, hyperactive, really shiny, completely inorganic (except for the flatulence jokes) and totally hermetic. The robots exist in a sealed universe in which everything is made of metal. It's slightly disorienting and hermeneutically impenetrable, like spending time inside a pinball machine rigged to question objective reality.
For one thing, the characters aren't materially different from their neighborhood fire hydrants, coffeepots or wristwatches. The good guys have been humanizingly "antiqued," and the bad guy is suitably chrome-plated, but even though they're created, they have no Creator. (Or do they?) Chris Wedge, who directed "Robots," says he wanted to make "a mechanical universe ... a totally created world," but as for there being "no reference points we could draw from" in creating it — well, er, ahem. Like its characters, "Robots" seems assembled from previously owned parts and spare cultural flotsam. For the postmodern grown-up, it will double as a vigorous spot-the-reference workout. The wink to Kubrick, I'm pretty sure, will whiz over the average 5-year-old head, as will the Brazilian wax reference and the extended allusion to death camps. But nods to "Star Wars" and Britney Spears are crowd-pleasers. Still, if I'm going to get beaned by this many free-floating cultural references, I'm going to need a helmet.
The story of a bright-eyed small-town robot who sets out to find the mechanical wizard of a gleaming utopian metropolis called Robot City, "Robots" gets its engine from "The Wizard of Oz" (the Tin Man has a cameo), which it reinterprets as a postindustrial, consumer-age parable about remaining true to yourself even if you resemble a 1950s kitchen appliance.
Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor), a robot built from hand-me-down parts, sets off to try to get a job with his hero, the industrialist inventor Bigweld (Mel Brooks), after his dishwashing father is humiliated by his boss. (Dad wanted to be a musician, but his parents had him retrofitted with a thoracic Maytag.)
Modeled on an old-timey entrepreneur of the early 1900s, Bigweld lives by the motto: "See a need, fill a need." Like Oz's Wizard, he's the one man who can help Rodney save his dad from his dehumanizing grind. On the day Rodney arrives in Robot City, he interrupts Ratchet (Greg Kinnear), a slinky MBA type who has pushed Bigweld into early retirement, laying out his corporate mission statement/dastardly plan to a boardroom full of cowed drones and one smart, beautiful robot named Cappy (Halle Berry). "If we keep telling robots they're fine the way they are," Ratchet bellows, "how can we expect them to feel crummy enough about themselves to buy upgrades?" Ratchet wants to stop manufacturing replacement parts and plans to change the company's motto to "Why be you when you can be new?"
Meanwhile, Rodney has befriended a ragtag team of scroungers — Fender (Robin Williams), his little sister Piper (Amanda Bynes) and their crew — who set out with him to find their savior. What, exactly, are we to make of the movie's populist-pro-labor-free-to-be-you-and-me message of personal empowerment, which seems to be the moral of so many corporate-sponsored fairy tales these days? Nothing, really. That's the thing about free-floating cultural references these days: They really do just float.
There's some irony — possibly intentional — in the fact that mechanical characters are enacting a movie plot so ubiquitous it's beginning to seem compulsory (small-town rube makes good, vanquishes corporate, formerly industrial, menace, saves his race) and reinforce the morals of the story — morals which, I'm pretty sure, it's now against the law not to drive home: Be yourself, be different, dream big, never give up, follow your bliss.
It's tricky to try to piece together a cohesive narrative from the scraps of meaning lying around all over the place. I mean, even the most superficial interpretation of the story leads to weird, incongruous places. Ratchet's plan doesn't just end with milking the robots of Robot City of all their money, see. His mother, Madame Gasket (Jim Broadbent), who dwells in an underground dungeon with a large furnace in it, wants to sweep up all the outmoded robots and melt them down into upgrades. Gracious, Dorothy, whatever could it mean? That, throughout history, and even to this day, innocent people have been rounded up and slaughtered in huge numbers for no reason ... so, um, just be yourself?
Not that there aren't flashes of brilliance. As Fender, Robin Williams deflates some of the unadulterated idealism that nonetheless prevails in the end. "Back off!" he yells at the Outmodes who crowd around Rodney after they discover he can fix them, "He's got his own dreams that won't come true!"
Everything is relative in "Robots." In that way, Wedge's manufactured universe resembles modern life more than the parallel universes of, say, "Ice Age." Even digitally rendered anthropomorphized animals' lives are governed by rules. But Rodney the Robot, like the average Information Age kid, lives in a swirl of mixed messages and marketing flattery, in which making a success of yourself and being a pop star and saving the world are all part of the same package. "You can shine no matter what you're made of," Bigweld says on TV, and Rodney turns to his dad. "He's talking to me, Dad." "He sure is, son," Dad says. He sure is.
MPAA rating: PG for some brief language and suggestive humor
Times guidelines: Some scenes scary for young children
20th Century Fox presents a Blue Sky production. Director Chris Wedge. Co-director Carlos Saldanha. Screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire and Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel, story by Ron Mita & Jim McClain and David Lindsay-Abaire. Producers Jerry Davis, John C. Donkin, William Joyce. Executive producer Christopher Meledandri. Editor John Carnochan. Music John Powell. Production designer William Joyce. Art director Steve Martino. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.In general release.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times