Adhering to the Shrek model for box office success, Robots is an assemblage of clunky puns and canned moralizing, ostensibly made palatable for adults through the addition of random pop culture references—a robot singing Britney, another plugging Star Wars, everyone quoting liberally from The Wizard of Oz.
Sort of a My First Metropolis, the movie follows dishwasher’s son Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor) as he travels to Robot City to proffer an invention to Bigweld (Mel Brooks), a benevolent CEO vaunted as “the greatest robot in the world.” But Rodney arrives to find Bigweld replaced by Ratchet (Greg Kinnear), a heartless executive diabolically planning to phase out spare parts. Obsolete droids will soon be forced to upgrade or be dismantled. Rodney falls in with the outcasts—particularly a hustler named Fender (Robin Williams)—and with the help of corporate insider Cappy (Halle Berry), he searches for Bigweld, the only droid who can repair Robot City without upsetting quarterly gains.
If The Incredibles finally made it fashionable to mine cartoons for subtext—albeit three generations after Looney Tunes—then Robots, set in a post-boom era, may come to be seen as the more salient allegory. No replacement parts? Read it as a Social Security metaphor. In the movie’s frightening economic vision, those who can’t pay the rent are literally broken up and melted down. Not that Robots is hopelessly pessimistic. While the deco-accented animation falls short of awe-inspiring, Robot City’s Rube Goldberg transit system is an endearing take on urban living, suggesting commuting as a daily process of being dropped, tossed, hammered, and spun.
Directed by Chris Wedge (Ice Age) with only the shortest attention spans in mind, Robots is entertaining enough that it leaves one wishing for more in the way of android mythology—a pint-sized Blade Runner or A.I. The screenplay goes on autopilot, grinding toward a happy ending just when it has a shot at something darker and more memorable. Robots is a corporate product, after all—but a sleek one.