Rodney the robot (voiced by Ewan McGregor) wants to go to the city to find a big fish. Er, to become an inventor for a corporate behemoth run by self-promotional genius Bigweld (Mel Brooks). His mom, the throwbackish Mrs. Copperbottom (Dianne Wiest) would rather he not leave home, and indeed, that he follow in his father’s footsteps, washing dishes in a depressing, perpetually busy diner (owned by grumpy Mr. Gunk [Dan Hedaya]). Herb Copperbottom (Stanley Tucci), however, wants his son to stretch out, and besides, he foresees a future in this invention stuff. And so he sends young Rodney forth with his blessing, with mom left watching the two boys embrace at the train station.
This is the way things tend to go in Robots: boys go forth and girls stand by. And sometimes, as in the case of the spastically endearing, strangely transformed Fender (Robin Williams) and the utterly evil, yellow-eyed and red-skirted Madame Gasket (voiced by Jim Broadbent, not so gravely as Larry King’s tranny turn in Shrek 2), boys play girls too.
Rodney meets both these quirky sorts in Robot City, where everything is a clever referent, some fun to note (a machine that sputters out of control begins to sing “Bicycle Built for Two”) and some marched out as signs of the makers’ pop cultural framework (“The force is strong with this one”). This in addition to the lessons that seem to pulse in neon to mark each step Rodney takes. These makers would be, primarily, Blue Sky Studios and director Chris Wedge, who previously made Ice Age (of which you will be reminded by the adorable squirrel-and-acorn, here-comes-the-sequel trailer that comes attached to Robots).
Rodney is not a little daunted by Robot City, where a rudimentary class system puts citizens in two categories: poor and downtrodden or rich and pompous. Rodney is daunted by the swarm of vendors, scroungers, and swindlers he encounters at the Grand Centralesque train station (here the hot watches speak, warning naïfs not to buy them), as well as the insanely clever Rube-Golbdbergian public transport system. In the hubbub of Robot City, Rodney discovers, his dream is not so easy to realize as he imagined. For one thing, Bigweld Industries is not the place Rodney saw on tv, inviting all youthfully idealistic inventors to come pitch their ideas. Instead, it’s a daunting fortress, with a Wizard of Oz-inspired security guard, Tim (Paul Giamatti), who teases Rodney with the promise of access, then slams down the fascistic gate with a peon’s power-tripping flourish. As Rodney realizes that Bigweld Industries now shuts out the “fresh ideas” that the tv version of Bigweld appeared to welcome so enthusiastically, he’s sorely disappointed. (Lesson here: don’t believe everything you see on tv, especially kids’ programming.)
And for another thing, the great Bigweld is nowhere to be seen, and his company is now run by the repeatedly upgraded Ratchet (Greg Kinnear), son of Madame Gasket. He quite literally embodies the new and improved, Microsoftish, mega-corporate future, in which “upgrades” are the rule and repairs, well, they’re outdated (the company’s revamped slogan, courtesy of Ratchet, “Why be you when you can be new!”). This means that robots deemed obsolete are hunted in the street by a large and scary “sweeper,” hauled off to a fire-belching assembly line (not everything is so pretty and sterile as Ratchet’s corporate office appears), and melted down. (Lesson: don’t get old.)
Perplexed that the city isn’t so shiny and welcoming as he anticipated, Rodney is rudely awakened when he finds himself in a dumpster where he’s prey for scavengers. Fender, it turns out, is in need of new parts, and as he endeavors to steal a piece of Rodney; being a nice kid, Rodney essentially kicks his butt, then makes friends — with Fender as well as his motley pals, including Crank (Drew Carey), Piper (Amanda Bynes), and big-bottomed Aunt Fanny (Jennifer Coolidge, vavoomily typecast even as a robot), whose name Fender explains thusly: “Well, we couldn’t call her Aunt Booty.”
Valiant and righteous, the old-fashioned robots fight back against the slick, wealthy, huge machine, in defense of the nostalgic, that is, the right to repair themselves rather than being forced to upgrade. And so you’re not too worried about his dallying in the danker parts of town, Rodney also meets a girl, the curvaceously upgraded Cappy (Halle Berry, who speaks maybe seven lines), a Ratchet defector who joins forces with the plucky outmodes.
While the animation is impressive, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel’s script falls back on now-ancient-seeming antics (you wouldn’t think you’d find a fart joke in a movie about metallic bodies, but there it is), and simplistic politics (conformity bad, inventiveness good), even as it conforms to every trick in the new-animated-movie, that is, Pixar, playbook. (Lesson: later for outmoded animation).