Machine Overload

Robots . . . . . . . . . . . .
Blue Sky Studios

Seeing Robots on an IMAX screen is, by turns, exhilarating, taxing, and frustrating. This cinematic roller coaster hurtles viewers eyes-first into a meticulously constructed tech-mech world of industrial iconography. Set in the metropolis of Robot City, it tells the story of small-town inventor Rodney Copperbottom (voiced by Ewan McGregor), a James Dysonesque, never-give-up-your-dream character whom designers are hard-wired to identify with, even if he is basically a wuss.

Rodney Copperbottom, Robots’ star, and Cappy, a bot executive

Rodney Copperbottom and his sidekick, Fender, on Robot City’s Crosstown Express

Having moved to Robot City from provincial Rivet Town, Rodney makes his way to the Bigweld Corporation, a mecca for tinkerers. Riding on what seems to be a mass-customized transit system that propels him from one body-spinning Rube Goldbergian contraption to another, he reaches a land of funny visual gags, great apparatuses, and healthy disrespect for the laws of physics, all set within a reclaimed landscape of familiar machinery repurposed to provide amusement park–like mayhem.

Refreshingly, Robots ‘ animators employ no rockets, lasers, phasers, plasma weapons, superpowers, or any other sci-fi standards. Instead, the design team looked to low culture—thrift shops, salvage yards, junk drawers, and vintage kitchen appliances. The result is a domestic design language in which each character has its own nostalgia-inducing sensibility, yet is part of a
larger collection of humanized tool-toy hybrids.

That said, the visual and verbal references in Robots pile up like cars in a last-lap NASCAR sprint finish. Batman, Alice in Wonderland, Star Wars, Metropolis, Lassie, Futurama, Braveheart, Fifth Element, The Wizard of Oz, The Jetsons, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Roller Derby, Singing in the Rain, Indiana Jones, Southern collegiate marching bands, Punch and Judy, and TV wrestling (and more) all make fleeting appearances. These references keep the grown-ups engaged, but Robots soon becomes a dizzying series of visual and aural rushes. Each reference so frenetically blends into the next that they ultimately conspire against narrative coherence and even entertainment value. While the Eisenhower-era color palette of muted blues, oranges, and greens is generally calming, the frenzied animation bludgeons one’s sensibilities with blunt-force CGI trauma.

Simply having killer computer power isn’t sufficient to ensure a magical cinematic experience. Director Chris Wedge and his team do amazing things with the tints, textures, shadings, and surfaces of Robots ‘ many metal constructions, but it takes more than lifelike patinas to make a great film. Because it’s now possible to produce an almost infinite level of captivating detail via computer graphics, knowing when to stop strikes me as the new hallmark of artistic excellence—and Robots doesn’t seem aware that too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

The plot revolves around the robots’ need for replacement parts, a consumerist critique in the making but also a more than poignant reminder for someone like me (who in real life is waiting for a kidney transplant) of how humans can wear out as well. Enter the malevolent robot boss Phineas T. Ratchet (Greg Kinnear). As interim leader of Bigweld Corporation, he declares that only expensive upgrades will henceforth be available; there’s not enough money in spare parts. Failure to follow Ratchet’s mandate turns robots everywhere into “rusties” and “outmodes.” As Bigweld’s new ad tag line reads, “Why be you when you can be new?” Those that can’t pay the price are sent to the “chopper,” destined to be melted down and remade into upgrades.

In the end, Rodney’s can-do spirit and concern for the common robot prevail over Rachet’s corporate skullduggery; as in all too few designer stories, the humble inventor trumps the big-shot businessman. Rodney succeeds by somehow rallying his crew of outmodes with the Disneyesque message “You can shine no matter what you’re made of.” It’s the American Dream, dumbed-down for artifacts. Instead of getting rich or gaining awareness, the robots get shinier and dance the Cabbage Patch.

Although Robots bursts with the creative enthusiasm of its talented team, in the end it was so visually dense that I longed for space to appreciate even a single image. If Robots had preceded Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., or The Incredibles, it might have been the inspiration its creators hoped for. In 2005, it comes off as nothing more than a brilliant sequence of anthropomorphic sight gags. In the world of today’s animated filmmaking, there’s Pixar—and then there’s everybody else, Robots and Blue Sky included.


Steven Skov Holt, a former editor of I.D., is Distinguished Professor at California College of the Arts and author of Blobjects & Beyond: The New Fluidity in Design (Chronicle Books, 2005).

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