Attention animators: Please stop creating wondrous alternate universes for the sole purpose of scoring easy jokes off their resemblance to the real world. When you make Shrek 3, for instance, Shrek should not eat at the Unicornia Pizza Kitchen. When a Shark Tale sequel comes up, the finny Will Smith should not shop at the Sturgeon Megastore. That joke just isn't funny anymore. The Flintstones did it first and nearly exhausted it. Recent big-screen cartoons have pretty much finished the trick. There might still be life in it, but a movie needs more.
The amiable but thin comedy Robots does have a little more going on, but not quite enough to make a difference, although it looks good enough to distract viewers from that fact for a while. Set in a world populated entirely by space-age-era robots—creaky devices that look like they might as easily be powered by pneumatics as microchips—the film looks like a storybook come to life. But storybooks tend to have stories worth following. In Robots, narrative takes a back seat to production design and not-too-funny funny business, as a plucky young inventor (voiced by Ewan McGregor) makes his way from Rivet Town to Robot City in an attempt to make his fortune with a dishwasher that looks like a coffee pot. (This makes more sense in context.) But as robots so often do, he finds that big businesses don't have time for young dreamers, particularly when said businesses' benevolent, Mel Brooks-voiced CEOs have given way to pitiless bottom-liners like the one voiced by Greg Kinnear.
As if to apologize for grounding an animated comedy in boardroom politics, Robots wanders away from the plot at every opportunity. McGregor's cross-town journey via a Rube Goldberg-inspired public-transit system takes up a lot of screen time. A later setpiece involving tumbling dominos seems to have been thrown in solely because someone had the hots for animating dominos. At least those bits are fun to watch, whereas the comedy, taken in part from the pens of the reliably disappointing team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (City Slickers, Fathers' Day), just kind of drifts by unnoticed. At least, apart from Robin Williams' contributions, which range from irritating to maddening. When his dilapidated robot breaks into a chorus of "Singin' In The Oil," it illustrates the half-assedness that characterizes every aspect of Robots apart from its look. See, it's just like stuff from our world, only with a robot twist. Get it?
Robots comes from Blue Sky, the studio responsible for the similarly pleasant, similarly uninspired Ice Age. Blue Sky does know how to animate a film, and among the ever-increasing number of computer-animation houses, it seems like the one most likely to make something that will rival Pixar, provided that it learns one important lesson from the competition: Have a story to tell before you start building the sets.