Hey kids! Do you like Short Circuit? Do you like The Iron Giant? Do you like The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? How about Big Hero 6, Wall-E, Blade Runner, and The Terminator? All of those movies were great, right? Wouldn’t it be great if we combined all those movies, but also threw in a bunch of 80s movie bullying, some teen angst, and a dash of Up and I, Robot? Surely it wouldn’t be a giant thematic mess that constantly undercuts itself, right?
I assume the company that made this pitch was also the company that created Wild Wacky Action Bike.
SUMMARY OF A SUMMARY (Summary is too long)
Girl finds robot. Girl bonds with robot. Robot fights evil organization that created it. Robot ends up sacrificing itself, but not really, so happy ending.
In the future year 20XX, we have robots everywhere. They’re cute and harmless little servants of humanity, constantly upbeat, and they are embedded into everything from security systems to noodle bowls. Yes, the noodle bowls are talking, self-cooking, and self-disposing. But it’s okay, because the movie tells us none of these are sentient, despite seeming to have emotions and feelings and independent thought.
Mai (Charlyne “Ruby” Yi) is a 12-year-old girl who hates robots because her mom, Molly (Constance Wu), bought one after her dad left them and then died, causing her mom to transfer many of her emotional bonds onto their robot. She’s also bullied for being different, although exactly how isn’t really clarified. Oh, and the bullies have their robots beat her up, something that is apparently just allowed to happen, because the human adults at the school are all too obsessed with VR and games to do their jobs.
Her mom takes her to the launch of the new major robot line, watching a presentation by the founder of the IQ corporation that makes them, Justin Pin (Jason Sudeikis), who is basically Jon Hamm playing Steve Jobs. Mai sneaks off and finds a secret lab belonging to the other founder, Dr. Tanner Rice (David Cross), who is working on the first true AI robot, 7723 (John Krasinski). Mai accidentally powers up 7723, but is taken away by security and leaves her bag. 7723 follows her to return the bag, revealing himself to be an overpowered war-machine with no understanding of the value of human life or property, but he gets injured in the process. This injury damages his memory, resulting in him only being able to hold 72 hours’ worth of memories at a time. To deal with this, he only keeps memories he likes and deletes the others.
He finds Mai and she convinces him to help her go on a spree of destroying other robots. Over time, 7723 becomes more emotional, bonding with Mai. He also stops enjoying their mischief and destruction, trying to convince Mai to do other things. After Mai tries to get him to hurt one of her bullies, 7723 deletes his weapons system. Meanwhile, it’s revealed that the new robots coming out of IQ are programmed to explode when told by Pin. Rice finds 7723 and tries to fix his memories, but is killed by Pin, who is revealed to actually be a robot who took over his body. Pin and his other body, a war machine named Ares, are trying to destroy humanity, but are stopped by 7723 when he re-installs his weapons at the cost of his memories, losing them slowly as he fights. Eventually, he wins, but is now blank. At the end of the movie, he now lives with Mai, making new memories.
If you didn’t read that I don’t blame you. This movie is so dense that I left out most of the sub-plots and that summary is still huge. There’s a subplot about 7723 being able to understand Mai’s dog Momo (Michael Peña), who speaks mostly in bleeped swears and constantly shifts moods between angry and loving. It’s funny, but it also feeds into why this movie fails: It never gives the characters time to really feel things.
Think about any great animated movie you’ve ever seen. Almost all of them, particularly Pixar, How to Train Your Dragon, and the good Don Bluth films (The Secret of NIMH), have strong emotional moments. These aren’t real people, so we need to have those connections even more than in real films in order to close the audience-screen gap and give weight to the characters’ actions (I’m sure there’s a real term for this). This movie doesn’t really do that, because it never lets the moment sit long enough for us to feel anything. The second there should be an emotional moment, the movie cuts from it to the next scene. At one point, a robot in the film basically calls the movie out for it by saying that he “needs time to process” an emotional development, but just beeps and says “I’m done” immediately.
It’s not like there weren’t a ton of opportunities for an emotional core to the movie. You could deal with the fact that 7723 is manipulated by the one human he trusts to be a force of destruction which he ends up regretting. You could, and almost did, deal with the idea of a person having to select what memories they keep and how that affects their personality and life. You could deal with Mai’s issues stemming from her mother being more obsessed with her replacement for her husband than with her daughter. You could deal with Mai being bullied or her feeling of loss over her father. You could even take a step back and deal with bigger concepts, like humanity being dependent on robots or why the IQ Corporation can apparently manufacture the police force and military without any kind of oversight or even why the hell you’d make robots that would be able to beat up children at the commands of other children. This movie instead tries to do all of these in 90 minutes, resulting in the last 15 minutes mostly being a game of “say 3 lines and pretend we wrapped this plot up.”
I will admit that the rapid pace of all the plot threads did keep me from paying attention to all of the things the movie doesn’t really answer or address, like how did Pin make a sentient robot before 7723 if Rice was the actual genius or how did Mai not get in trouble for destroying dozens of robots while on film or why did Mai just murder a police officer or how was it not a bigger deal that DOGS CAN TALK? There are ton of these things that really don’t hold up to scrutiny, but the movie wasn’t awesome enough to keep me from considering them, instead trying to just not give me time to think. Still, most of this movie doesn’t make any sense in retrospect.
The real tragedy is that much of this film is actually excellent. The animation is beautiful, the progression of 7723’s display from two circles to eyes and a mouth is a great way to signal his development, a lot of the robots are adorable, the final fight scene SHOULD have been epic (instead it just feels unearned), and some of the humor actually works. David Cross plays all the generic robots and they have some hilarious lines, including a Gen5 saying “The Gen6’s slightly bigger screen will complete you emotionally in ways I never could,” which is genuinely good commentary. But if you try to make a cake/salad/ham/meringue at the same time, it doesn’t matter if you made each part well and put it in a nice box, it’s still a mess.
To the filmmakers, I say the following: the best film isn’t necessarily the one with the “most plot.” If it were, the third Godfather would be the best one, rather than a mediocre conclusion to an unbelievable franchise. What we want is to go on a journey with the characters. We can’t do that if the characters are on 15 different journeys at once. I understand that you didn’t want to feel like you were just re-hashing old plots, so you tried to combine a lot of them, but that’s not necessarily what makes a movie new. Think about How to Train Your Dragon. The movie is literally a list of clichés over a generic story, but even though it is all of those things, the film focused on how the characters feel going through the story, rather than the story itself, and it does that by showing us how everyone feels after all the cliché moments. Like, this shot from after Stoick yells at his son and disowns him still shows him almost crying with the realization that, even though he did what he had to do, he’s still hurting from having to do it.
Also, as a side-note, I love Jason Sudeikis, but you will never convince me that they didn’t intend for the character to be voiced by Jon Hamm. He looks like Hamm, he talks like Hamm’s characters usually talk, and he is a glorified pitchman with a dark side, something Hamm is most famous for playing. It’s like how the snowman in Jack Frost looks like George Clooney rather than Michael Keaton or how the vultures in the Jungle Book were supposed to be the Beatles: It just seems to indicate that the casting changed after the production started. Or maybe I’m wrong.
Overall, it’s a movie that I think kids might enjoy, but adults wouldn’t. Unfortunately, given the number of terrible things that the protagonists do in the movie, I wouldn’t recommend showing it to kids.
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