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Design for machine living

Making 'Robots' look good

By Todd Leopold

The robots of "Robots" come alive with color and design.
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Eye on Entertainment
Bruce Willis
Joyce Carol Oates

(CNN) -- They gleam with a candy-colored shimmer, beautifully molded shapes of chrome and metal. Even the clunky ones have a lovingly polished finish.

They're like a dream of Raymond Loewy and Harley Earl, highlighted with the hues of a Googie palette and directed by a sunny Fritz Lang.

The robots of "Robots" are something to see.

The new film from the creators of "Ice Age" isn't just a triumph of computer animation, though it surely is that as well. Its design is amazing, a riotous Mixmaster of pre-1950 styles and colors.

Too often we don't pay attention to the design that's all around us, particularly if that design is now classified as antique -- even if we have warm feelings for that old Waring blender (with the chrome base and clover-leaf pitcher), Toastmaster toaster or 1948 Cadillac.

Earl, sadly reduced to a ghostly pitchman for Buick in an ad campaign a few years back, designed that car, just as Loewy designed the classic Electrolux vacuum cleaner (building on the work of Lurelle Guild) and Paul Rand created the IBM logo. Indeed, much of their work still seems fresh. Yet they remain pretty much unknown, despite the ubiquity and influence of their work.

Modern designers -- some of them, anyway -- have had better luck. Target has devoted whole departments to the work of Michael Graves and Phillippe Starck, automakers highlight J Mays (Ford) and Chris Bangle (BMW) and chic hotels trumpet the credits of their interior designers.

So perhaps we should note the names of the "Robots" makers: director Chris Wedge, production designer William Joyce, art director Steve Martino and the whole group of talents at Blue Sky Studios.

Eye on Entertainment pulls out the pliers.


"Robots" takes place in a robot world inhabited by Rodney Copperbottom (voice of Ewan McGregor), Cappy (Halle Berry), Crank Casey (Drew Carey), Fender (Robin Williams) and the other machines of Rivet Town and Robot City.

The big corporation is Bigweld Industries, run by the fatherly inventor Bigweld (Mel Brooks). Bigweld has always believed in maintaining the core robot and selling replacement parts when necessary. Rodney would like nothing more than to meet him.

But Bigweld is forced out by the cruel, calculating Phineas T. Ratchet (Greg Kinnear), who has a philosophy of complete remodeling. (And his mother runs the smelting plant. Draw your own conclusions.)

So Rodney falls in with the Rusties, including Fender, and the battle is joined.

"Robots" is, as noted, visually stunning. Much has been made of the look of Robot City -- a super-metallic Manhattan -- and Rodney's careening taxi ride.

But if early reviews are any indication, the movie's primary flaw is a different type of structure -- the script. Critics have complained that the plot is too simple and the message superficial, not at all like the rich and dense work from Blue Sky's main competitors at Pixar.

"What else suggests a complete surrender of effort, imagination, and skill better than an extended flatulence joke between all the metallic characters?" writes one poster on the Internet Movie Database, echoing many mainstream reviewers.

Nevertheless, "Robots" is, without a doubt, well made and quite beautiful. Children should have a blast. Maybe they'll even gape at the design.

"Robots" opens Friday.

On screen

  • Bruce Willis goes the "Die Hard" route again, playing a former hostage negotiator drawn back into his old job when three men take a family hostage -- only it's the family of a man connected to a crime kingpin. Hilarity ensues. Not really. Opens Friday.
  • Joan Allen is already earning Oscar talk for her performance in "The Upside of Anger," about a woman with four daughters who's abandoned by her husband. She turns to drinking and a neighbor ex-baseball player (Kevin Costner, also earning nice reviews). And it's a comedy, too. Opens in limited release Friday.
  • In "Millions," the new film by "Trainspotting" and "28 Days Later" director Danny Boyle, two young boys have to figure out their responsibilities when a large sum of money falls into their laps. Opens in limited release Friday.
  • On the tube

  • John Stamos as a hunky single guy looking for love? Sometimes life and art match up all too closely. Stamos is the star of "Jake in Progress," a comedy premiering 9 p.m. Sunday on ABC.
  • Sound waves

  • Crosby, Stills and Nash's career is capsulized on "Greatest Hits" (Rhino/Atlantic), out Tuesday.
  • If you're wondering what's been dominating the charts, for better or for worse, there's the collection "Now That's What I Call Music! 18" (several labels). No wonder K-Tel had to give up this lucrative part of the music market. Out Tuesday.
  • "Stage" (Virgin) offers a night with David Bowie, circa 1978. The album comes out Tuesday.
  • Paging readers

  • The incredibly, amazingly prolific Joyce Carol Oates -- astonishingly, NOT a robot -- publishes another book of her collected criticism, "Uncensored: Views and (Re)views" (Ecco), on Tuesday.
  • The incredibly, amazingly non-prolific Jonathan Lethem puts out a collection of essays, "The Disappointment Artist" (Doubleday), Tuesday.
  • Video center

  • For those who are interested in comparing styles between Pixar and Blue Sky -- or simply want to watch the best James Bond film never made -- "The Incredibles," winner of the Academy Award for best animated feature of 2004, comes out Tuesday.

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