It's odd when you think that Robots is John Powell's first solo animation score, because it certainly feels like he's been doing them for years and years. And, theoretically, he has - anybody who's relatively familiar with the styles of both Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams will agree that it's the former's busy, energetic style that dominates the majority of Antz, Chicken Run and Shrek. Add to that The Road to El Dorado (a collaboration with Hans Zimmer in which, again, Powell's voice shines through) and the live-action scores for films like Evolution, Rat Race and The Adventures of Pluto Nash - all of which contain a healthy dose of slapstick humor - and you have the odd case of a composer debuting in a genre he has already mastered. And that's exactly what the score of Robots sounds like: the work of an accomplished master of the animated genre.
John Powell's name nearly always goes hand-in-hand with a hyperactive, diverse percussion section, both sampled and live. This has come to his aid in action/thriller scores like Paycheck or The Italian Job ; here, rather than consisting of electronic loops, the section is very detailed, wonderfully organic and performed by none other than the Blue Man Group. It really does include everything but the kitchen sink - and, considering the sort of stuff that Blue Man Group plays on, it might even include that - creating a perfectly fitting aural backdrop to the intricately designed robots in the film. Just the first few seconds of the first track, 'Robots Overture', are enough to instantly enchant percussion enthusiasts.
An issue that some have expressed with Robots is its perceived lack of continuity. A certain amount of schizophrenia certainly exists in this score, perhaps best typified by the sudden entrance of an obnoxious Carl Stalling homage at 0:47 into 'Robots Overture'. It jarringly interrupts a fine performance of one of the score's four themes (though it is certainly an accurate pastiche and, as always with Powell, you can't help but admire the energy). Still, if you can come to terms with the fact that the film required the score to switch tack often and with lightning speed, you will be treated to a wildly creative 44 minutes of music. And, once you've familiarized yourself with the score's four recurring themes, you will realize that no matter what genre Powell turns to - from sweeping orchestra ('Train Station') to marching band ('Rivet Town Parade') to big-band swing ('Bigweld TV/Creating Wonderbot') to fully orchestral action ('Escape') - one of the themes is never far away. This lends a ton of much-needed continuity to an otherwise disjointed score, and though it isn't obvious at first, it's quite well-developed for a slapstick score. Though the themes lack the instant memorability of those from Chicken Run, it doesn't take much to commit them to memory, and once you have, hearing them unfold in such diverse guises is very rewarding.
A quick runthrough of the four themes and where to hear them could be useful when first approaching this potentially off-putting work. Two of them - used almost interchangeably - represent the human side of the robot characters, and are introduced at 0:13 and 1:42 respectively in 'Robots Overture', both over thick beds of that fantastically catchy Blue Man Group percussion, mixed at an ideal distance so as to complement, rather than overwhelm, the strong orchestral writing. The first of the two is a motif with a rising structure and a wistful feeling of hope that is given surprisingly emotional, sweeping string arrangements in the first minute of 'Train Station', 'Phone Booth' and the finale, 'Dad's Dream'. It also makes sporadic appearances in the action material, such as 4:18 in the fantastic 'Escape' (which is like a combination of Chicken Run and 'Hog Chase Part 2' from Paycheck - sublime).
The second gets a bit more runtime and has a very warm, friendly, slightly nostalgic tone; it is possibly the most attractive of the four, and its appearances are always welcome. The aforementioned 1:42 in 'Robots Overture' is an album highlight. Blue Man Group gets their most prominent usage over the theme in 'Wonderbot Wash' (which also features a fluttering flute solo at 1:30). A statement in which the phrases alternate between glockenspiel and harpsichord at 0:24 in 'Crosstown Express' is a perfect example of the vast instrumental creativity of this score. It is translated into the sweeping strings in the first half of 'Phone Booth', cleverly worked into a softer moment in the action of 'Escape' at 2:06 before exploding with almost swashbuckling brass at 3:18 in a highlight that rivals the best of Chicken Run's orchestral ruckus. A ballsy choral march at the outset of 'Attack of the Sweepers' is further testament to the theme's variability, as is the bizarre (and slightly obnoxious) bagpipe rendition at 0:39. A swelling statement at the outset of 'Homecoming' is a fitting final recapitulation of the theme.
A third theme debuts in 'Rivet Town Parade' - this one representing the wacky and wonderful robot world. As the track title suggests, this cue is a bombastic marching-band extravaganza, with thumping bass drums, cymbal crashes, the works, while the theme blasts over the top on wailing brass. Reappearances include the big-band fanfare at 0:16 in 'Bigweld TV/Creating Wonderbot' and the painfully short-lived choral wonder at 0:53 in 'Crosstown Express' (ending on an irritating downward slur). More choral wonder is a highlight in 'Bigweld Workshop', before the motif is twisted into an ultra-weird surfer rock version in the last twenty seconds of that cue. It appears less and less as the score progresses (logically, since the discovery of the robot world occurs chiefly in the film's first act).
And finally, the fourth and least utilized motif is the only one firmly tied to a character: namely the delightfully insane Madam Gasket, who runs a furnace in which outdated, scrapped robots are melted down and reworked into expensive upgrades for the rich robots (part of the film's admirable message about shining no matter what you're made of). Danny Elfman would be proud of this comically ominous march, especially its statements over oompah rhythms in 'Madam Gasket' and 'Chop Shop'; chanting male chorus augments the former, while the latter concludes with a fabulous descending sequence of tubular bells. It makes a few sporadic reappearances in the action material (for example, a clever little hint at 1:40 of 'Escape' and a staggered male choral version at 1:14 of 'Attack of the Sweepers').
I've now pointed out at least two dozen thematic statements; I probably haven't even covered half of them. Such is the loyalty and attentive detail Powell gives his themes, manipulating them into the often bizarre needs of each separate cue. The result is a score that manages to be both utterly haywire in its creativity and surprisingly cohesive in its development; an appealing combination.
Robots isn't a perfect score - the inconsistency stops it being that. It isn't even Powell's best, either. But - and you might think I'm going a bit crazy here - it doesn't have to be, because it is incredibly likeable. I'd rank How to Train Your Dragon, Chicken Run, Paycheck and X-Men: The Last Stand - maybe even Hancock - higher, but Robots is the Powell score I return to most often. There's addictiveness to the interweaving themes, the amazingly diverse percussion, the Powell-brand sense of fun and swinging energy...there's even something about the constantly switching genres that keeps drawing me back. I can't really explain it, beyond saying I have a lot of affection for this madcap collection of music. Fellow Powell fans, at least, should be able to sympathize. And if you're not a Powell fan, get this score; it just might convert you.