Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: now we have Transformers: Age of Extinction out in the world, and I don't even know what to do with that fact. There are only so many things you can do with movies about robots from space, even when some of the space robots are dinosaurs. I just don't, I don't care. Here you are. Fucking robots.

Time has been astonishingly kind to 2005's Robots, a film that looks like (and is, really), an undistinguished kid's animated adventure-comedy stealing from Pixar and DreamWorks in approximately equal measure. At the moment of its creation, it was merely the sophomore feature from the studio that had produced the dully likable 2002 talking animal comedy Ice Age, https://www.alternateending.com/2014/06/blockbuster-history-fuckin-whatever-robots.html#footnote">* and given the vogue for founding new animation studios in the early '00s, there was no reason to think that this "Blue Sky Studios" was up to much of anything that we needed to pay attention to. Nine years and seven features later, with four already scheduled for the future, Blue Sky has very much established itself as in the game for keeps, at least as important in the family-friendly junk food business as Illumination Entertainment and arguably bigger than the increasingly dented DreamWorks itself. And yet, in all that time, Blue Sky hasn't yet managed to top the visual quality present in their second effort: Robots has the best rendering, most creative animation, and certainly the most imaginative design of anything the studio has ever made.

A whole lot of that has to do with the fact that Robots is, after all, about robots. As Pixar and its early exercises in animating plastic, tin, and vinyl objects could tell you, inorganic material is far easier to make look realistic than flesh and fur and blood and muscle; and having made it look realistic, it's easier to push it to appealing extremes of non-realism. When an Ice Age mammoth moves, and his hair hangs uncertainly and his legs move stiffly, it screams out that something is wrong and we're watching low-grade fakery (and that's an extinct animal: the tiniest imperfections are even more obvious when they're happening in human form). When one of the characters in Robots moves inflexibly at rigid points of articulation, with his surface holding a very stiff, glossy shape, it barely registers; after all, why wouldn't that be the case?

But it's not simply because the filmmakers cheated their way into a scenario that requires less of a buy-in from our suspension of disbelief that Robots looks so much better than even something much later, like 2013's Epic: the characters really do look pretty terrific in every respect, and if the film were made today with all the money any major studio could through at it, I honestly don't know that it would look an ounce better. The lighting, undoubtedly, would be more carefully sculpted and realistic, but given the bounciness, vivid colors, and playful movements involved, I very much doubt that would be the right direction for this to go, anyway. It's a cartoon: a beautifully touchable, wonderfully inventive cartoon. The production was designed by William Joyce, a picture book author whose only other work designing a feature was on, guess what, Epic; the character designs are credited to Buck Lewis, a name it's very much worth knowing: his work in design and concept art has high, high peaks (Ratatouille!) and low, low valleys (Alvin and the Chipmunks...) but his batting average is impressive, and even some of his weaker efforts still ooze unique personality and idiosyncrasy. Robots is, at any rate, not one of his weaker efforts, designing several robot characters, many of them seen only briefly, in terrifically distinct components that give them mountains of personality and unspoken backstory, the rattletrap collection of ad-hoc parts and the sleek chrome figures alike.

Between Lewis and Joyce - the latter giving the film's robot towns and robot cities the kind of madly, wonderfully broken logic of a kid throwing all of her toys together in a pile and figuring out on the fly how to make them work together (though the opening waltz through the robot world owes far to obvious a debt to the early scenes in Monsters, Inc.) - Robots has a deeply appealing look to it, an Art Deco-infected riff on mid-20th Century futurism in the Walt Disney mode; the whole time I was watching it, I couldn't shake the feeling that it took place in the world that Disney's later Meet the Robinsons (based on a Joyce book) was aiming for, and not hitting.

And what - what, pray tell - does this immensely beautiful, tactile, lived-in and vibrantly artificial world do with itself? Squanders itself on a completely miserable script, that's what it does. The bar for 21st Century family entertainment is too low for me to go around spewing angry words where they plainly don't belong, so I can't claim that Robots is somehow worse than anything else that came out in 2005 (Chicken Little and the first Madagascar hailed from that year, after all), no matter how wretched the writing is. And it's pretty wretched: the hopelessly derivative "hero's journey" shtick on the typical model where the first act is comedy, the second act is heartwarming, the third act is a frantic chase, with a brutally clichΓ©d lesson to learn about how you can be yourself and follow your dreams and up-end the mechanics of robber baron capitalism and all.

That would be the really disorienting and unpleasant thing about Robots: it has some of the worst tonal shifts of any American animated movie in its generation. Mostly, these things know what they are: the ones where the parents are just there to grind their teeth and suffer through the saccharine nonsense; the ones where the kids won't understand that two-thirds of the jokes are even jokes, let alone why they're funny. Robots tries desperately to split the difference, and it's as ugly a join as I can imagine. The plot, again, has to do with corporatist overreach displacing the homeless and the deeply impoverished: when young starry-eyed robot inventor Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor) arrives in the economically stratified Robot City, it's to find that humanitarian (robotarian?) industrialist Bigweld (Mel Brooks) has been displaced in his own company by shiny bastard Ratchet (Greg Kinnear). This sleek robot openly wishes to starve out all the robots who can't afford the costly new upgrades he's rolling out - that's openly, you understand - while secretly plotting with his deranged mother, junk shop maven Madame Gasket (Jim Broadbent), to convert all of the newly-destitute into molten metal for re-purposing into God knows what.

Horrifying stuff; well, kids' movies can be horrifying, even when the sociology is weirdly over-politicised. But that's just the tip of where Robots indulges in material that's purely aimed for a grown-up, or a least an adolescent audience. The film's depiction of robot dating, robot procreation, and robot puberty - complete with robot gender identity confusion! - practically begs us, weeping on its hands and knees, to really dwell on the mechanics and implications of robot sexual biology. It is, I am not hesitant to say, a wildly smutty thing, the most fuck-crazy animated movie about robots with a PG-rating that I can ever expect to see. But then there are so many things which could only possibly have been designed with a very young audience in mind: a lengthy sequence in which a houseful of robots, each in their turn, demonstrate their skill at armpit farting (culminating in a genuine, and apparently quite foul, robot fart; which raises almost as many questions about biology as the film's explicit contention that robot males have penises); or the shticky impressions and ethnic caricatures provided by Robin Williams as Rodney's comic relief sidekick Fender Pinwheeler,. The soundtrack includes Britney Spears's "...Baby, One More Time", and yet it also includes Tom Waits's "Underground", the latter of which has to win some kind of award as the most unexpected song in an animated movie in the 2000s (it's played in full, for God's sake).

And there are plenty of ways in which Robots is just a lazy, routine, wannabe Shrek: the somewhat arbitrary voice cast of famous people who neither sound right nor obviously add marquee value (Halle Berry, Amanda Bynes, Drew Carey, and Stanley Tucci join the ones I've already named; at least Broadbent, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Coolidge, and Paul Giamatti put some kind of effort into their performance), the metronomic progression of plot points that require a certain compactness of narrative which makes it feel like this huge, wonderfully detailed metropolis only actually has about a dozen people living in it; the gratuitous use of obvious music cues. More obvious than Tom Waits, that is.

I frankly don't know what to do with it. I look at it, in motion or even just in stills, and I am convinced it's one of the highlights of American studio animation in the last 15 years; I listen to it, and I want to take an axe to my own head; I attend to the plot, and I'm too bored to notice how tremendously, unflaggingly irritating it is. This level of technical accomplishment and this level of dreadfully flat commercialism don't usually go hand in hand; the pleasure to be had in the design and animation of Robots is real and pure and deep, but it's a tremendous chore to wade through all of the bullshit the filmmakers put in the way to get at it.




*Incidentally, it really can't be overstated how much the first Ice Age feels, in retrospect, like it exists not merely in a different narrative universe, but a different cinematic ecosystem altogether than its three sequels.