Sophisticated and eye-tickling as it is, computer animation can delight an audience simply by the uncanny, nearly sculpted way that it makes intangible physical objects look miraculously real. Toy Story, the feature-length debut of the form, ushered us into a magical realm by mirroring the glossy synthetic sheen of plastic playthings, and Ice Age, with its zigzag-cracked glaciers, was a winter-world fantasy as tactile as a virtual-reality ride.
In a similar spirit, Robots, the second film from the Ice Age team, is all about the metal. In this zippy, enjoyable sci-fi slapstick jamboree, the main characters aren’t sleek and shiny digital droids. They’re nuts-and-bolts contraptions that look as if they’d been put together by a deranged mechanic working with whatever he happened to find on his garage floor. Early on, Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor), the gee-whiz hero, isn’t born, exactly. He’s built like an appliance, assembled right out of the box by his parents. Rodney, who grows bigger but still looks like he was made out of several old vacuum cleaners, leaves home to seek his fortune as an inventor in Robot City, which is like a Shanghai Oz designed by Frank Gehry entirely out of gleaming alloys. There, he befriends a group of misfit robots who might have been banged together out of even scrappier Erector sets than he was.
Fender (Robin Williams), their motormouth leader, has a head like an ancient steam whistle, and Piper Pinwheeler (Amanda Bynes) tosses pigtails that look like twin discarded light fixtures. There’s a bot with break-dance moves as smooth as his body is chunky, and one with a torso like a car radiator grill. Most of the characters in Robots have at least a few screws loose — literally. These walking, talking piles of junk don’t look or feel like the pop-fantasy robots of the ’50s, that heyday of technological optimism. If anything, their designs harken back to the clunkier, more primitive shapes of the ’40s, when the dream of mechanized middle-class living was still in embryonic form. Watching them, you feel as if you could reach out and touch their rivets and mechanical eyebrows, their ancient sprockets and corroded paint jobs.
Robots is a high-tech marvel of low-tech love. The fluky charm of its chop-shop aesthetic is the embodiment of its theme, which is that individuality in robots is a good thing, even if it’s being stamped out by the evil Ratchet (Greg Kinnear), a towering corporate mama’s boy with a pinstripe-suit torso conjoined to his head, which is composed of razory layered symmetrical plates. He represents the new world of impersonal fascist design, and he’s behind a plot to trash the ”outmodes” by denying them the spare parts they need. Robots is a fable of old-school values under siege: The bots’ war for access to those spare parts could almost be a commentary on our health-care system, and Ratchet and his cronies, who look about as organic as tinsel Christmas trees, are like the metallurgic products of cosmetic-surgery ”perfection.” (Ratchet’s mother, who resembles a Jabba the Hutt built out of moving wrenches, makes it clear he must have had a makeover.)
Robots is crammed with madcap detail. There are terrific bits, like the ingenious (and utterly nonsensical) Rube Goldberg ride that Fender and Rodney take in a spherical public-transport cage, or the ritual drinking of morning ”coffee” (i.e., hot grease poured over a robot’s body). Mel Brooks is the voice of Bigweld, the famous inventor whose company has been taken over by Ratchet, and the animators wed Brooks’ raspy, grandpa-mensch delivery to the vision of a giant silver art deco Pac-Man that rolls into rooms.
Overall, however, the visual comedy isn’t nearly as unhinged as it might be. Considering the playful funkiness of its images, Robots is too rote and square in the script department. Robin Williams, doing his first voice in an animated feature since the ADD genie of Aladdin (1992), makes Fender a likable enough sidekick, but the actor, disappointingly, spends most of the film in second gear. As appealing as it is, Robots lacks the stoned crackpot wit of, say, Shrek 2 or The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, not to mention the virtuosic dazzle of The Incredibles.
Yet the movie bops along with a happy, jumping, kinetic vitality. Is it a coincidence that R2-D2 looks as if he would fit right in with the misfit bots? Robots has visual motifs that echo back through the entire history of robots, from the Tin Man to the jerry-built cutups of MST3K. For adults, it’s part of the movie’s fun to make those nostalgic connections. And also to realize that yesterday’s mechanical man of the future has become, for kids, today’s mascot of the past.