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John Gardner once said that a stranger coming to town is one of the only two stories worth telling. That the celebrated novelist failed to mention anything about a sidekick is probably why he never got much work from Hollywood—and none in animation. Robots screenwriters David Lindsay-Abaire, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandel, however, know better: The first person bright-eyed, hand-me-down-parts-wearing Rodney Copperbottom (voiced by Ewan McGregor) bumps into after he heads off for the bright lights of Robot City to make his way as an inventor is streetwise rust bucket Fender (Robin Williams). Of course, Rodney’s new friend comes equipped with a ragtag group of outmoded cohorts, as well as an archnemesis: corporate drone Ratchet (Greg Kinnear), who plans to stop production of spare parts for all the junkbots, announce a line of sleek new upgrades, and send out a legion of mechanized street sweepers to round up all the obsolete machines that are too poor to afford them. So when the warmhearted boss (Mel Brooks) goes missing and Bigweld Industries’ company slogan of “You can shine no matter what you’re made of” switches to “Why be you when you can be new?” it’s up to Copperbottom & Co. to set things straight. Sure, it’s the same old story repackaged in, well, a sleek new upgrade, but veteran kids’-flick directors Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha know how to keep their audience’s attention. For the kids: clear-cut heroes and villains, fast-paced action sequences à la Wedge and Saldanha’s Ice Age, and plenty of fart jokes. For the moms and dads: some arch commentary on 21st-century consumerism, a surprisingly heartfelt look at the relationship between work-weary blue-collar parents and their idealistic offspring, and the requisite (and occasionally funny) references to 2001, Scarface, and Braveheart. Robots’ most appealing feature, however, is Robot City itself, an eye-popping world overflowing with hi-tech gadgetry, imaginative architecture, and a dizzying transportation system—in other words, exactly what animation was invented for. “See a need, fill a need,” ol’ man Bigweld advises budding young inventors during a television commercial. As long as they keep cranking out films as entertaining as Robots, it’s advice Saldanha and Wedge should continue to follow.

—Matthew Borlik