No cog in the wheel

Staff WriterMarch 11, 2005 

Sly humor gives parents a smile while bright characters keep kids laughing, a tough trick for a family flick.

Kids who see "Robots" are likely to leave the theater doubled over and repeating the movie's funnier lines. Adults may have trouble getting to sleep that night.

On the surface, "Robots" is the yuk-filled tale of a young robot, Rodney Copperbottom (voiced by Ewan McGregor), who, from the moment he's "delivered" (in a parts-filled box labeled "Build-a-Baby"), dreams of being an inventor. He grows up, leaves his hometown of Rivettown and arrives in Robot City, ready to meet his hero, Mr. Big Weld, and be a part of the altruistic Big Weld Industries. (First, of course, he must get there on Robot City's Rube Goldbergesque mass transit system; think TTA meets Carowinds.)

On his journey, he's befriended by Fender, a robot constantly at loose ends -- literally -- and Fender's family. That Fender is voiced by Robin Williams ensures that there's no dearth of one-liners. (When Fender's dad attempts, not-too-successfully, to play a trumpetlike instrument, Fender describes it as "a fusion of jazz and funk. It's called junk." While trying out a number of vocal signal codes, Fender slyly slips in the "Ricola" yell. And so on.)

Not that he's the only source of mirth. After Rodney makes a heartfelt call home to his folks, the animated pay phone tells him, "Your father loves you very much. (Pause) With our friends and family plan ... ." There's also the destitute robot panhandler with a sign around his neck reading "Got Screwed." And the obligatory flatulence scene with Aunt Fanny that is, perhaps, the first truly funny flatulence scene in a kids movie.

But "Robots" also has a darker, Orwellian side. When Rodney arrives at Big Weld Industries, he discovers Mr. Big Weld has mysteriously been replaced by a pinstriped robot named Ratchet. Under the altruistic Mr. Big Weld (voiced by Mel Brooks), the company's slogan was, "You can shine no matter what you're made of." Under Ratchet, "Why be you, when you can be new?"

The change reflects BWI's new direction: No longer will cheaper spare parts be made for ailing robots. From now on, you must "upgrade" -- if you can afford it. And if you can't? The scrap metal operation run by Ratchet's mama stands to benefit nicely.

Corporate corruption, blind obsession with the bottom line, a health care system that favors society's haves, America's obsession with appearance, our throw-away society -- these are among the movie's subtle social themes that may have older audience members sprouting new gray hairs between laughs.

True, other kids films have dealt with similar themes -- "Antz" (totalitarianism) and "A Bug's Life" (a kind of insect imperialism) come to mind. But "Robots" is more all-encompassing and a bit more disturbing, perhaps because a robot is easier for us to identify with than a caterpillar. Perhaps, too, because "Robots" is set in a futuristic world that resembles what 2000 was envisioned to be like in Orwell's time.

While the laughs continue throughout, an otherwise fine script by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (who've teamed together on previous films, including both "City Slickers"), loses steam near the end. Particularly disappointing in a movie where so many contemporary issues are deftly handled is the shallowness of Mr. Big Weld, whose motivations are skipped over.

Still, "Robots" is that rare kids film that adults are as likely to want to see again as are the kids. If for no other reason than to get the Robin Williams jokes they missed the first time around.

Staff writer Joe Miller can be reached at 812-8450 or jmiller@newsobserver.com.

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