I love animated movies. Sure, Disney and Pixar make outstanding movies and ranking them makes for great party conversation (at least until someone’s strong feelings about Wall-E get too intense). I grew up on The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast with my dad frequently singing the fragments of ‘Bare Necessities’ and ‘Be Our Guest’ that he knew. (Singing very short fragments of songs is also now one of my talents! My wife loves it…) But I also grew up on Wallace & Gromit via the perfect trilogy of Grand Day Out, Wrong Trousers, and Close Shave. This sparked a love for claymation and stop-motion-animation. I watch almost every new Laika and Aardman production (Arthur Christmas is a Top 10 Christmas movie, don’t @ me). So yeah, I’m the annoying guy at the party stuck in 2016 stumping for Kubo & the Two Strings to win best picture over Inside Out.
All that said, it was my great pleasure to re-watch Robots which is Greg Kinnear’s venture into voice acting (discounting Beavis and Butt-head do America). It’s a fun little movie with a simple plot, good animation, and a stellar cast. Robots’ cast composition follows the ‘rule of 3’ to which most animated movies adhere: established voice actors (Robin Williams, Mel Brooks, Jim Broadbent), big stars (Ewan McGregor, Halle Berry, Greg Kinnear), and hot names of the day (Drew Carey, Amanda Bynes). The third category is my favorite, as it dates animated movies and serves as a fun trip down pop culture’s memory lane. Do y’all remember She’s the Man? What is Amanda Bynes doing now?…is a question you can ask google.
Co-directed by Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha, Robots follows Rodney Copperbottom (voiced by Ewan McGregor). Rodney is “born to” (aka assembled by) a poor dishwashing robot and his wife in Rivet Town. Rodney grows up constantly inventing things and dreams of heading to Robot city to meet Mr. Bigweld (Mel Brooks), the head of Bigweld Industries. The company produces robot parts and appliances of all kinds under the slogan “see a need, fill a need.” According to the TV advertisements, Bigweld’s front gate is always open, welcome to anyone with a new invention. So Rodney comes of age and makes for the city with his newest invention, a small flying robot.
On arriving in Robot City, Rodney heads for Bigweld Industries. He’s shocked to find the front gate is closed and entry forbidden. Persistent, Rodney uses his flying robot to hop the gate before crash-landing in the company’s board room. Inside, Bigweld is nowhere to be seen. Instead, Phineas T. Ratchet (voiced by Greg Kinnear) presides over a company meeting where he terminates production of spare parts and insists all old robots buy upgrades or be sent to the chop shop. He ejects Rodney from the company’s premises.
Dispirited, Rodney soon falls in with a group of “outmodes,” i.e. old robots in need of replacement parts. This group includes Piper (Amanda Bynes) and Fender (Robin Williams), who is in need of a new neck. Rodney fixes Fender’s neck, and soon starts fixing outmodes all over the city. Hoping to enlist Bigweld’s help, Rodney and Fender head to the annual ‘Bigweld Industries Ball’, where Bigweld always makes an appearance. But (surprise!) Phineas announces that Bigweld will not attend. Rodney confronts Phineas, before narrowly escaping.
Soon, Fender learns of Phineas’ ulterior motives for banning production of spare parts: his mom runs the chop shop and melts old robots to make new parts and get rich. This prompts Rodney to sneak into Bigweld Industries and find Bigweld. He does, only to discover that Bigweld has conceded defeat to Phineas and now just makes elaborate domino chains. It’s a pretty cool scene (and hello Halle Berry’s character), even if Bigweld is supes lame:
Rodney decides to give up and head home. Just as he’s about to buy his train ticket, Bigweld shows up with a change of heart. Ultimately, Bigweld, Rodney, Fender, and a bunch more outmodes decide to fight Phineas, his mom, and her army of chop shop robots. And (surprise!) the good guys win. The movie even ends with a rousing, all-cast song which is a staple of all early 2000s animated movies. Here, it’s Get Up Off of That Thing.
While Robots is not in the upper echelon of animated movies, it’s still very fun. I did not watch it with my daughter (sorry to disappoint), but it is the first Greg Kinnear movie my wife watched with me in a while. This is indicative of either the enjoyability of Robots or questionable quality of GK movies I’ve recently watched–I’ll let you decide. With a positive message, eye-rolling robot puns, and superb voice-acting–Robots is fun for the whole family! Robin Williams, in particular, is excellent. Just as he stole an Oscar from Greg in 1999–he steals the show in Robots. Robin brings his customary manic energy to the role and has numerous scenes written (or ad-libbed?) specifically for him like “Singing in the Oil” (see that robot pun?!).
Robots is a kids movie, so let’s do something for the kids! For your enjoyment, my analysis of Greg’s performance starts with a fun fill-in-the-blank exercise (!!) using the following word bank:
Stop me if you’ve ________ this before (but don’t stop reading!). Greg ________ plays exceptional ________. They’re narcissistic, with pride bursting from their ears. Like Captain Amazing looking for an equal foe in ________, or a Soap Opera Doctor convinced Renee Zellweger is one of many doting groupies in ________. Greg’s villains also have a way with words, ever-seeking to mask deficiencies and hoodwink naive associates. Like when he says all the right things to string along Ashley Judd and hide his other relationship in ________, or when he slick-talks his way to stealing and selling a valuable violin in ________. But Greg’s best villains are also extremely insecure, with a brashness that over-compensates for a character deficit. Like Greg’s swagger coaching youth baseball that belies a dead-end career and unhappy home life in ________, or Ghost Greg‘s worries that his widow will fall in love with someone else in ________. Whether it’s his narcissism, slick-talking, insecurities, or ________ that cause his downfall, Greg becomes increasingly and wonderfully desperate as his villains are always undone.
[Hint: you can find the answers by clicking on the hyperlinks and reading more of my posts. That’s truly a win-win situation!]
Greg’s villainous Phineas T. Ratchet is no different: a narcissistic, brash robot whose insecurities surface once his mother reveals herself as master puppeteer. Greg’s voice-acting is top-notch. When we first meet his character in the company board room, Greg’s voice is pure gusto as he unveils his plan to stop making robot spare parts. When the employees ask about Bigweld (who would certainly object), Greg throws his voice a bit to mock this silly question and demand complete subservience. But we soon meet Phineas’ mother Madame Gasket (voiced by the exceptional Jim Broadbent), and she is much more terrifying:
Gasket’s dastardly plan is to destroy all old robots, build a robot army and control the city. In the presence of Mom Gasket, Phineas’ insecurities surface as he both doubts himself and the plan. Greg’s voice inflects this perfectly as the high pitches he used to mock his coworkers now turn to whining and quivering. In public, Greg as Phineas still speaks with authority–such as at the Bigweld Industries Ball. Behind the scenes, Phineas’ shift to his mother’s pawn is rendered complete by Greg’s excellent voice acting.
Besides a minor role in Beavis and Butthead Do America and uncredited narration of That’s What I Am (if that even counts), this is Greg Kinnear’s only foray into voice-acting. It’s a pity, because he is so good in Robots. But perhaps such one-time perfection is not a thing to be trifled with.
- Animated movies are fantastic. From Disney to Pixar to Laika to Aardman, there are so many terrific studios making terrific movies that you should be watching.
- Robots is a simple but fun animated film from 2005 telling the underdog story of a young robot dreaming of inventing things in an equitable society.
- Robots features the great voice-acting skills of Ewan McGregor, Robin Williams, Halle Berry, Mel Brooks, and where-are-you-now Amanda Bynes.
- The movie was Greg Kinnear’s only substantial foray into voice acting, and his characterization of the villainous Phineas T. Ratchet is exceptional. Behold:
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