Faulty Wiring: Probing the Glitch in Robots

Originally published in Nathan Jr. - Monthly Film Discussion, Issue #2 (April 2005)


I’m still flattered that the editor of Nathan Jr. took the money I so desperately threw at him so that my words could grace these hallowed pages of authoritative film insight. I just hope he spent it on a color printer or a better writer because I’m not so sure he’s going to let my by-line reappear anytime soon.

But as long as we have this time together, let me commence my open indictment of the animated celebrity voice acting phenomenon and its manifestation in the Robots, the new Fox treat currently thrilling kids in theaters. While the invasion of Robot technology is right around the corner gearing up to take over our economy, it also represents the next logical world to exploit after bugs, monsters, fish, and retired superheroes. I can see the (not so) creative executive light bulb smashing: “Robots! Let’s do robots. It’s brilliant!”

Some might say the release of Robots is a bit premature, given that it follows hot on the heels of last year's Will Smith vehicle, I Robot. The evil special effect robots in I Robot were way more cool-looking than those in Robots, which appear to be drawn by some right-handed fourth grader with her left hand. One such figure has been modeling billboards with accompanying copy, “Coils just want to have fun.” Apparently, “coils” are young, yellow female robots that have funnel pigtails protruding from the sides of their heads.

But bad animation aside, according to the Section 128ac of the Studio Greenlighting Handbook, it is a sound investment for a studio to start budgeting a more kid-friendly, celebrity voice accentuated, computer animated version of a moderately successful live-action special effects extravaganza immediately after said live-action special effects extravaganza has been deemed "moderately sucessful" by financial analysts at Variety. A convoluted mouthful, I know, but the key words in Section 128ac are “celebrity” and “voice.” Assuming my writing organization is slick, oiled, and immune to wayward tangents and angry musings, it is on these two words - and these two words only - that I will focus this article.

Quick side note because I cannot grasp simple concepts like “focus”: Hey, was anyone else lead astray by the title, I Robot, in hoping that the presumed “I” character, Will Smith, would turn into a robot? As soon as I learned that this was not the case, I decided against seeing the movie and instead turned to the comfort of Bicentennial Man and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reruns.

And to side note the side note, for proof that Will Smith may never join the Class Act Actor Club (President: Denzel Washington, Court Jester: Sean Penn, Best New Tattoo: Jamie Foxx), please listen to a song called, “You Saw My Blinker” on the DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince album, Homebase. It’s his motorist tirade against some poor old lady who may or may not have caused a ding on his Coupe de Ville or whatever slicker he was driving before Men in Black. This song would kill any potential run for the Presidency faster than the Swift Boat Vets, although Bush’s National Guard MIA, coke habit, and public drunkenness certainly passed the metal detectors just fine. To Big Willy Style’s favor, he’s definitely got the egomaniac thing down. Like P. Diddy, he can’t settle on a stage name. And what was up with calling 2000 the start of the Willenium, as if he’s going to be gettin’ jiggy wit it for the next thousand years?

Back to the celebrity animated Robots, or actually, back to the prospect of Will Smith turning into a robot. Even though, to my dismay, Mr. Pinkett-Smith does not grace the expensive celebrity lineup of Robots, you have the likes of Robin Williams, Halle Berry, Ewan McGregor, Paul Giamatti, and Greg Kinnear injecting human voices into the wires of the robots. Yeah, you heard me right. Human voices and robots. Man and machine. Real and manufactured. You’re totally on top of where I’m going with this, and it’s not the SAT analogy section.

In case you missed the billboards for the upcoming Madagascar (“starring” Chris Rock, Mrs. Will Smith, and Ben Stiller) or trailers for Chicken Little (voiced by Zach Braff in a bold post-Garden State move), movie and television personalities are all over the animation circuit, and they’re not going away. What began innocently enough with Robin Williams’ hilarious Genie in Aladdin and Elton John eerily presiding over The Lion King has now become a cash coup for stars and their agents, as well as an effective marketing tool for the studios. Even though it doesn’t always work (Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the 2003 flop Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas), that didn’t stop Fox from packing Robots with enough TV and film brand names to balance the federal budget.

In Robots, Williams provides the “pipes” for Fender, the scrappy sidekick comedian robot who befriends Rodney, or robotic Ewan McGregor, who falls in love with Cappy, or robotic Halle Berry. Just describing the plot is burning a question after the next period. Do kids sense anything wrong with a human voice inside a robot, or is it just a matter of suspension of disbelief, child imagination working its magic? Maybe I’m still upset that there is no way to find out what R2D2 was actually saying in Star Wars, but putting Bruce Willis’ voice there just would have been wrong (and scary). In much the same way, Robots is just wrong.

What is fundamentally so grating about Robots is that the voices we know to be so human, even Academy Award-winning human, have been reduced to inhabiting machines. All that remains is a wierdly ambiguous message to kids (or is it just me?) about the difference between man and robot. Toy Story brought inanimate objects to life, but meaningfully, through the eyes of kid imagination. Since Robots makes no meaningful connection between robots and humans but feels free to blur the line anyway, it represents everything that is wrong and excessive about the celebrity animated voice phenomenon.

To digress to editorial generalizing (in case I haven’t already), the studio animation film has progressed from childlike hand-drawn Mickeys to technologically flawless, frighteningly realistic, video game-like production value. Story-wise, the genre has slowly moved from literature to musicals to original screenplays that cleverly reflect our popular culture. The evolution of celebrity voice dependency represents further proof that the target audience is slowly but surely shifting older into the post-Shrek apocalypse. Am I the only one who doesn't buy it?

Because my good conscience has prevented me from wasting two hours of my precious time to actually see Robots, let alone pay some theater conglomerate more than what I make per hour (a hefty percentage of which will go to Fox, who could, frighteningly enough, divert it to Bill O’Reilly’s bonus), you might want to consult the “real” critics before passing any preliminary judgment on the film. Larry King says it’s “THRILLING,” by the way, and no, that wasn’t a caps lock key accident.

Perhaps most alarming of all is that more credible reviewers like Movie Mom are salivating over the film’s “be yourself,” anti-corporate, underdog story about the pitfalls of a consumerist society. The central moral message of Robots, “You can shine no matter what you’re made of,” reads like a classified ad for white-trash DNA samples. It may succeed in duping kiddies and parents, and raping the box office. Don’t let it fool you. Like every film product, Robots is ultimately a sum of its parts: celebrity voices, production value, token positive kids message, hokey marketing, cereal on display, action figures, Robots 3: Beyond Thunderdome set for production in ’08. At the end of the day, this shiny sum is all that matters to the studios. You can shine on, you crazy Robots, but you won’t get a penny from me as long as we’re still living in the Willenium.

*For extra credit, please check the website, robots.net. As of opening weekend, the page’s only mention of the movie is on a Google-bought sidebar ad, so obviously, the robot industry is turning a cold shoulder to this movie, instead focusing on Bill Gates’ plans to develop a gang of robot teddy bears to watch over, and eventually raise, your kids. I wonder…will “Teddy” make them watch Robots over and over again if they misbehave?


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home