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Why, Robot 

Slick visuals can't fix rusty narrative

There's probably only one way to fully enjoy Robots, and that's by watching it at home on DVD, with the mute function engaged and the fast forward button at the ready.

If ever a movie warranted the Second Coming of silent cinema, it's this animated effort from the same studio (20th Century Fox) and director (Chris Wedge) that brought us the middling Ice Age. Visually, the film is yet another triumph for computer programmers, as their blood, sweat and mouse pads have enabled them to create a wondrous landscape that's a joy to behold. But whenever any of the metallic characters that populate this world open their mouths, it's like listening to rusty bolts across a chalkboard. That's because these 'bots are apparently programmed to deliver only two types of dialogue: lame wisecracks that reveal an obsession with bodily functions (who knew that robots could break wind?) and flat speeches that have already been endlessly recycled from far superior kid flicks.

It's not often that I care to watch a mediocre movie more than once, but it would probably be a kick to check this one out on home video, just to be able to skip through the dull passages (roughly half the film) and pause on the moments during which, Sergio Aragones-style, interesting things seem to be occurring in the margins. Some of these visual asides are truly clever, but when a film's primary source of pleasure comes from sights half-hidden in the background, there's something terribly amiss.

Robots' rote storyline centers on young Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor), who journeys from his tiny hometown to the sprawling metropolis of Robot City to fulfill his dream of becoming an important inventor. Yet his arrival in the big burg coincides with the power play of the ruthless company executive Ratchet (Greg Kinnear), who plots to destroy all the destitute robots by catering only to the rich ones. Yet before he can even begin to discuss his plan to also privatize Social Security, he's forced to deal with the idealistic Rodney, who has rallied his friends in an effort to squash Ratchet's scheme.

Pixar and (in most cases) Disney understand the importance of matching the right vocal talent to the right role, but the makers of Robots were simply happy to land an all-star cast and left it at that. There's no defining personality to most of these characterizations: Rodney could just as easily have been voiced by, say, Tobey Maguire or Joaquin Phoenix, and Ratchet by Jason Patric or Guy Pearce. For the most part, these are generic voices filling out generic roles.

Two of the few exceptions — one for better, one for worse — are Mel Brooks and Robin Williams, respectively cast as kindly inventor Bigweld and manic misfit Fender. Brooks, so cheerful a personality that even a documentary on the Depression would seem like a laugh riot were he tapped to narrate it, provides a spirited reading for his role, and his genuine warmth and obvious enthusiasm are a real boon. Williams, on the other hand, has taken a lamentable break from working up a strong resume as an actor of range by resorting to the same tired shtick that has become emblematic of his career. Whether his character's dressing in drag or making armpit noises or warbling a Gene Kelly takeoff called (groan) "Singin' In the Oil," Williams comes across as little more than a trained seal, balancing the ball on his nose when commanded but investing little beyond the programmed moves. Sad to say, he's become as mechanical as the robot he portrays.

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