Documentaries about students finding their passion and competing are definitely going to work for me. I have been teaching for sixteen years now, and seeing students succeed will always be a big deal for me. More Than Robots (2022) is now streaming on Disney+, and it is one such movie that manages to resonate with me despite some of its weak spots. However, Gillian Jacobs makes her directorial debut on this documentary feature, and – while the subject matter is engaging – it has some structural problems with the story that makes it drag a bit at times.
The film follows four teams of teenagers from around the world as they prepare for the 2020 FIRST® Robotics Competition. It is here that the structure of the story appears to lag a bit, as the pacing in which the team is introduced feels off. Gradually, we get to know teams from Los Angeles, Mexico City, Chiba, and Japan as they work to take their unique robot designs all the way to the highly competitive global championships. In similar documentaries, such as Science Fair (2018) – which is also on Disney+ – it felt like we learned who the kids were early on, and we cut between them all more efficiently to build the dramatic tension and develop the story.
Despite taking issue with how the teams were introduced and who on the teams the film focused upon, it was impossible not to root for them. The events in the documentary are taking place in early 2020, and watching it in a post-COVID world through the eyes of a teacher who has worked through the pandemic and seen the aftermath of it first hand, there is an inherent emotional attachment to what is transpiring. Since COVID, there is a noticeable apathetic quality to the students right now, so seeing students taking pride and even an interest in their own work was a refreshing reminder of what education can look like.
More Than Robots is a solid documentary that functions as a human story that we can root for as well as a unique time capsule for the early days of the pandemic. The people involved in the competition really embrace their roles in the project, and that simply makes for an engaging watch. While it doesn’t really establish any new ground in the process, it is easy to enjoy and maybe spark some ideas for your own children to get involved in this competition. More Than Robots earns the Decent Watch rating.