The best movies capture their time in history, taking us to another world and making us see ourselves from a fresh angle.
"Ice Age" directors Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha, along with their team of animators and designers, have created a civilization that's one part "Blade Runner" and two parts Rube Goldberg with Robot City, the Big Apple of the android world. Yet despite its giant Slinky spring cars, mind-whirring traffic and robot citizenry, it's clear that the whole setup is a finely polished, metaphoric mirror.
Our Everyman, or in this case, Everybot, is Rodney Copperbottom (voiced by Ewan McGregor), a young sparkplug of an inventor who comes to Robot City in search of fame and fortune. Initially, his adventure doesn't go so well. He's knocked around by the metropolis' public transit system in an inspired sequence that integrates magnetic yo-yos and all manner of gadgets seemingly pinched from the basement of Bill Nye the Science Guy.
Equipped with little more than his double-entendre moniker and perky optimism, Rodney aims to present his inventions to Bigweld (voiced by Mel Brooks), the 'bot behind Bigweld Industries, the largest provider of spare parts and robot technology.
Instead of the jolly Bigweld, however, he finds Phineas T. Ratchet (voiced by Greg Kinnear), a tricked-out, slicked-down corporate executive, in his place. Under Ratchet's direction, spare part production ceases and Bigweld's former corporate logo, "You can shine no matter what you're made of!" gets replaced with "Why be you when you can be new?"
Sounds like the subliminal message of every fashion magazine, Botox party and cosmetic surgery clinic, doesn't it?
Movie scribes Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel, Jim McClain and Ron Mita also cleverly tap into themes of consumerism and monopoly, cementing the affections of anyone who has ever tried to repair rapidly obsolete technology. (The equation is pretty clear: Ratchet equals Microsoft.)
In Robot City, mechanically outmoded second-class citizens, called "Rusties," befriend Rodney on his search for the mysteriously absent Bigweld. Outmodes also face extinction via Ratchet's giant sweepers, which take them to the Chop Shop for a "Soylent Green"-style recycling program.
Halle Berry, Drew Carey and Amanda Bynes round out the co-starring voices but Robin Williams steals that show as the manic, motor-mouthed rust bucket Fender.
Certainly, competitors Pixar and DreamWorks have shown it's possible to create an animated film without Robin Williams, but "Robots" seems to ask: Why would you want to?
Sure, it's vocal typecasting (Williams provided similarly unhinged character voices in "FernGully," "A.I." and two of Disney's "Aladdin" movies). But when revved up, he approaches a human cartoon, an exploding joke factory whose ad-libs infuse even the most basic scripts with creative vitality. In "Robots," he's tried and true if you're a fanand marginally annoying if you're not.
The only squeaky wheel in "Robots" comes from a problematic bit of the storytelling mechanics. We're never really given an adequate explanation for why Bigweld disappears and allows Ratchet to take over. His well-timed return feels equally shaky.
Despite the occasional dent, "Robots" emerges as a compelling bit of comic clockwork.
Directed by Chris Wedge; co-directed by Carlos Saldanha; written by David Lindsay-Abaire, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel; story by Lindsay-Abaire, Jim McClain and Ron Mita; production design by William Joyce; music by John Powell; edited by John Carnochan; produced by Jerry Davis, John C. Donkin and Joyce. A 20th Century Fox release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:31. MPAA rating: PG (for some brief language and suggestive humor).
Rodney Copperbottom - Ewan McGregor
Fender - Robin Williams
Cappy - Halle Berry
Phineas T. Ratchet - Greg Kinnear
Bigweld - Mel Brooks
Crank Casey - Drew Carey
Piper Pinwheeler - Amanda Bynes