More Than Robots Review: Clever Kids Compute And Cooperate In A Delightful Documentary [SXSW]

Today's kids are lucky enough to have a wealth of technology at their disposal to further their education. Outside of the traditional curriculum crafted for kids across the board, there are a variety of programs in schools that allow developing minds a chance to bolster STEM careers, or rather job opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics. One such program is FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an international youth organization that operates the FIRST Robotics Competition where teams of high school students, coaches, and mentors are given six weeks to build a robot that can complete certain tasks, such as scoring balls into goals, placing inner tubes onto racks, hanging on bars, or balancing on a beam. Founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen in 1989, it's a challenging test of ingenuity and cooperation, and it's also the subject of "More Than Robots," a new feature documentary directed by "Community" and "Fear Street" franchise star Gillian Jacobs that just debuted at the South by Southwest film festival and arrives on Disney+ this week.

"More Than Robots" follows teams from Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Chiba, Japan as they unbox the materials for this year's competition, where the tasks required of the robots change every year. This time, the competitors are treated to an introduction to the competition by "Star Wars" franchise star Mark Hamill, thanks to Lucasfilm sponsoring the event by way of their Force for Change charity program. While that might immediately seem like Disney tooting their own horn, especially since the documentary is produced by Lucasfilm and will be distributed by the House of Mouse, these wonderfully nerdy and clever kids in the competition are also exactly the kind of fans who love "Star Wars," so it doesn't grotesquely feel like Disney is merely patting themselves on the back. 

A bright future

This is a fairly conventional documentary, as Gillian Jacobs and her crew follow three distinct teams preparing for their regional competitions. There's a lot of trial and error, nervousness and debate, but ultimately triumph from teamwork as these teens and their coaches and mentors figure out how to craft the most efficient robot. It's the cooperation that's most important, because even though each team is striving to win the competition outright, it's not just about winning. Yes, that's a bit cliché, but the competition is intentionally designed so that, even though teams are competing against each other, they must also join forces in order to win. Each individual team is put into alliances with other teams for the competition, and they must work together to come out on top. If a team's robot isn't particularly good at one of the challenges before them, they might still be appealing to another team in order to help win against another alliance of teams.

Great success is in store for some of these kids and their robots, but others are forced to face defeat. Even so, the real victory is in the skills they developed along the way. Is that cheesy as hell? Absolutely, but there are real lessons for these kids to learn on this journey. In fact, the timing of this documentary's production is both a blessing and a curse, because the FIRST Robotics Competition season that's the focus of "More Than Robots" had only just kicked off as the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across the globe in March 2020. China's regional competitions were canceled because of coronavirus, and Los Angeles and Mexico City barely completed their regional competitions before the public event shutdowns began and axed the rest of the season's match-ups.

This might seem like a disappointing ending for such a spirited documentary focused squarely on a competition that encourages community cooperation in person, but there's a silver lining to be found in these unfortunate events. Without the robotics competition to focus on, these ambitious and ingenious minds didn't idly sit and pass their time outside of school with an endless rotation of Netflix, TikTok, and video games. Instead, they put their STEM skills to work by figuring out how to help the people around them during the pandemic. One team uses 3D printers to create face shields for donation, another designs a robot that can be used to deliver contact-free curbside grocery orders. Even more impressive is a team using their know-how to create ventilators in order to help with the crippling shortage. It's a little on the nose, but it's clear why this movie is called "More Than Robots."

Gillian Jacobs doesn't necessarily break new ground with "More Than Robots," but the film is still a lovely look at some promising kids from all walks of life getting the chance to spread their wings and find a community of like-minded peers who make them feel a sense of belonging and purpose. Considering how volatile teenage years can be, especially in high school, this is exactly what these kids need in order to get through the times when a robot won't be able to help.

"More Than Robots" premieres on Disney+ on March 18, 2022.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10