The five tenants of an old building in New York are threatened by a land developer demolishing buildings all around them. Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy star as an elderly couple trying to keep the building’s storefront café in business. Elizabeth Pena plays an expectant mother, Frank McRae plays a mute boxer-turned-handyman, and Dennis Boutsikaris plays a struggling artist. Just when all these characters are at their lowest point, an inexplicable miracle arrives in the form of two small flying robots who fix up the building in exchange for electricity. What do they need electricity for? To make baby flying robots, of course. But as the evil corporate developer gets more and more desperate to destroy the building, how much can these mysterious little robots do to help their human friends?
*batteries not included is a silly but warm-hearted movie that you’re either going to reject from the start, or run with it. The screenplay by genre notables Mick Garris (Sleepwalkers), Brad Bird (The Iron Giant), and Matthew Robbins (Dragonslayer) wisely leaves the origins of the robots a mystery. Even more wisely, they don’t let the mechanical wonders upstage their human cast members. We have enough empathy for all of them to care about their predicament. Cronyn gets a lot to work with, taking care of a spouse suffering from memory loss and extreme denial. Tandy’s moment comes when the fantasy she’s worked so hard to maintain comes crashing down around her, along with the bricks and foundation of her long-time home. We even come to care about the robots, too — especially after one of their babies is stillborn.
It may not be the effects-laden high-stakes scenario we expect from executive producer Steven Spielberg, but *batteries not included is good counter-programming in a sea of darker, more cynical offerings. It’s a story about a surrogate family bonding over supernatural circumstances that the whole family can enjoy.
With Michael Carmine as a redeemable villain, and a terrific score by James Horner. Directed by Matthew Robbins.