Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection
Treading water at the very surface of RoboCop, there is an idea. A dense concept, ready and willing to provide no dearth of dissection for any eager student of philosophy, psychology, political science, physics — hell, any of the Ps. To simplify the idea on hand: What separates man from machine? It's a question that is not just teased by the basic premise of José Padilha's remake of the 1987 sci-fi staple, but asked outright by many of its main characters. And then never really worried about again.
We have principal parties on both sides of the ethical quandary that would place the security of our crime-ridden cities in the hands of automatons. Samuel L. Jackson plays a spitfire Bill O'Reilly who wonders why America hasn't lined its streets with high-efficiency officer droids. Zach Grenier, as a moralistic senator, gobbles his way through an opposition to the Pro-boCop movement. We hear lecture after lecture from pundits, politicians, business moguls (a money-hungry Michael Keaton heads the nefarious OmniCorp...) and scientists (...while his top doc Gary Oldman questions the nature of his assignments while poking at patients' brains and spouting diatribes about "free will"), all working their hardest to lay thematic groundwork. Each character insists that we're watching a movie about the distinction between human and artificial intelligence. That even with an active brain, no robot can understand what it means to have a heart. But when Prof. Oldman tempers his hysterical squawking and Samuel L. Hannity rolls his closing credits, we don't see these ideas taking life.
In earnest, the struggle of rehabilitated police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) — nearly killed in the line of duty and turned thereafter into OmniCorp's prototype RoboCop — doesn't seem to enlist any of the questions that his aggravated peers have been asking. Murphy is transformed not just physically, but mentally — robbed of his decision-making ability and depleted of emotional brain chemicals — effectively losing himself in the process. But the journey we see take hold of Murphy is not one to reclaim his soul, although the movie touts it as such. It's really just one to become a better robot.
Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection
Meanwhile, RoboCop lays down its motives, and hard: Murphy's wife and son (Abbie Cornish and a puckish young John Paul Ruttan) lament the loss of Alex, condemning his dehumanization at the hands of Raymond Sellars' (Keaton) capitalistic experiments, and sobbing out some torrential pathos so you know just how deep this company is digging. Weaselly stooges (Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, and Jackie Earl Haley) line the OmniCorp roster with comical wickedness. Overseas, killer combat bots take down peaceful villages, unable to work empathetic judgment into their decision to destroy all deemed as "threats." And at the top, figures of power and money like Sellars and Pat Novak (Jackson) speak the loudest and harshest, literally justifying their agenda with a call for all naysayers to "stop whining." Clearly, RoboCop has something to say.
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And when it's devoted to its outrage, RoboCop is terrifically charming. The buzzing political world is just a tiny step closer to ridiculous than our own; the pitch meetings at OmniCorp are fun enough to provoke a ditching of all the material outside of the company walls. And one particular reference to The Wizard of Oz shows that the movie isn't above having fun with its admittedly silly premise. But it loses its magic when it steps away from goofy gimmicks and satirical monologues and heads back into the story. We don't see enough of Murphy grappling with the complicated balance between his conflicting organic and synthetic selves. In fact, we don't see enough "story" in Murphy at all. First, he's a dad and a cop. Then, he's a RoboCop. But can he also be a RoboDad? With all of its ranting and raving about the question, the film doesn't seem to concerned with actually figuring out the answer.
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Two orphaned kids Andi (Emma Roberts) and her mechanical whiz of a younger brother Bruce (Jake T. Austin) live in a foster home with a couple of aging wannabe rock stars (Lisa Kudrow Kevin Dillon) who are vehemently anti-pet. Running out of ways to keep their stray pooch Friday hidden in plain sight they stumble on to an abandoned hotel that turns out to be the perfect shelter for Friday – and transform the place into luxury accommodations for all sorts of unwanted pets they spring from the local pound and the streets. But can they stay one step ahead of the law while keeping this United Nations of dogs in line? Human actors don’t have a chance against the gifted assortment of canines. With dogs of every breed from a border collie who loves to herd sheep (don’t ask) to an English bulldog obsessed with chewing stuff the trainers deliver a cast that flawlessly pulls off every dog trick in the book. Fortunately Roberts (Nancy Drew) and Austin are winning and likeable as the two main kids who share a need for family with their four-legged counterparts. Kudrow and Dillon don’t get a whole lot to do in strictly stereotyped roles but Don Cheadle as the kids’ social worker adds a nice touch of dignity and warmth to the story. For his first American feature German director Thor Freudenthal got the supreme challenge: working with kids and animals. Getting this furry menagerie to act on cue could not have been easy but Freundenthal and his talented trainers make it look so. Particularly amusing are the various gadgets and elaborate contraptions Bruce builds to keep the doggies occupied and quiet -- including simulated car windows they can stick their heads out of portable toilets complicated feeding machines and on and on. Just like the current hit Marley & Me it’s a funny and heartwarming family comedy.
"Hey Hey Hey--it's Fat Albert!" From the very first introductory line--voiced by Albert (Kenan Thompson) himself--you cringe just a little. It's like watching a good friend attempt a tough impersonation you hope he can pull off. The story hews close to what the cartoon
Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids was always all about--a goofy gaggle of African-American kids making the best of growing up in a rough neighborhood in Philadelphia. No matter what the trouble--runaways drug use juvenile delinquency--they managed to find a way to solve everyone's problems and bookend each episode with the contagiously upbeat "Na na na--gonna have a good time! Hey hey hey!" The same goes here--only in a modern twist the problem to solve happens to be in the "real world." Doris (Kyla Pratt) a shy and lonely teenager has a rough day at school where she learned she wasn't invited to a big party. She comes home to watch Fat Albert on TV Land and a stray teardrop hits the remote control creating a magical portal through which the animated Fat Albert and gang decide to jump. Scaring the heck out of the bewildered Doris the guys stumble out of the television set and take to their realistic surroundings and mission quite quickly. In short order they set about trying to find Doris some new friends much to her embarrassed chagrin and along the way they try to make sense of modern day life with its perplexing cell phones pull-top cans and rap music. Yet the more time they spend in the real world the more they fade away their clothes becomes more washed out and eventually they even seem transparent.
Thompson (Saturday Night Live) does as good a job as could be expected embodying a classic cartoon character that has been etched into our minds for decades known mainly for the booming voice pounding footsteps and wide red-shirted girth. He also has the unenviable task of imbuing the character within the actual storyline (not to mention sharing screen time with Bill Cosby himself who quickly but effectively intones the classic phrase in a standout cameo). In the real world Fat Albert falls in love; not with Doris the girl he's helping but her older sister Lauri (Dania Ramirez) who in turn has taken a shine to this selfless big lug. Thompson is also required to sing and dance and try his hand at rap (but we'll skip the part in which Albert races a malevolent track star who's jealous of his appeal--it's so out of place and unnecessarily fake-looking that it's best forgotten). Kyla Pratt also does a good job holding her own playing the young Doris as one part hopeful one part incredulous. The rest of the "Cosby kids" blend in with one another if not for their single quirk or two: Jermaine Williams as the unintelligible Mushmouth; Keith D. Robinson as Bill the level-headed one (essentially the young Bill Cosby); Alphonso McAuley as Bucky with his protruding big teeth; Aaron A. Frazier as Old Weird Harold tall with the big 'fro and Marques B. Houston; as Dumb Donald most of his face covered by a pulled down ski-cap with eye holes.
Already a lot has been said about Fat Albert's sitcom-like feel which may in fact be appropriate given the source material but meandering between the two plotlines the story nevertheless feels as padded as Thompson's suit. Director Joel Zwick's (My Big
Fat Greek Wedding) staging style and attitude are clearly geared toward kids who likely won't miss the lack of real wit in the bickering exchanges between the gang but who may not get the references including the opening animation styled just like the mid-1970s show. This movie's target audience has barely even heard of Theo and Rudy Huxtable let alone Weird Harold Mush Mouth and Dumb Donald. In the cartoon Albert and the Cosby kids populated an urban world of fire hydrants streetlamps and garbage dumps that wasn't without a certain charm. The problem is that charm of the original doesn't work within the context of life today. Just slapping this colorful cast of characters into music video dance scenes doesn't do the job. One notable exception to the often unengaging quality of the movie is a brief visit Fat Albert makes to the real Bill Cosby. The legendary performer softens his curmudgeonly ways and puts forth a possible explanation for Albert's manifestation in reality tying it in with the character's origin in his own head. It's an interesting tidbit with a small payoff at the end.