ComingSoon.net/Superhero Hype! recently enjoyed a tour of Imagi Animation Studios’ Los Angeles outpost (tucked as discretely away in an unlikely location inside a Sherman Oaks shopping mall as Astro’s backside blasters are) where work was nearing an end on the long-anticipated feature film based on Osamu Tezuka’s enduringly beloved manga comic dating back to 1952 and perhaps most fondly recalled from its animated Japanese TV incarnation from the 1960s. Astro Boy remains in iconic pop culture figure in Japan, as adored as Mickey Mouse (where he’s honored with everything from fashion items to statuary), and also celebrated in countries across the globe.
So it’s with no small effort that Imagi the Hong Kong-based company perhaps best known for the short-lived but lavishly animated DreamWorks TV series “Father of the Pride” and Warner Bros.’ TMNT film is relaunching Astro as a big-screen superstar, well aware of his impact around the world. Imagi’s Hong Kong-born founder Francis Kao was educated in the US and grew up watching the original cartoons.
Thus Imagi’s become what they like to call a 24-hour studio: The “front-end” work on the Astro Boy film story and script development, character design, set design, etc. was handled by a Los Angeles team of about 80-120 staffers who would teleconference or Skype about large and little details with 400 animation staffer in Hong Kong before handing over the reigns to the Chinese office to work through the US night (The studio is ambitiously aiming to soon produce at least one film per year, with Gatchaman up next).
Imagi turned to director David Bowers (Flushed Away) to makeover Astro for the modern audience, and to do so Bower delved into the character’s surprisingly dark-tinged manga origins for inspiration like other pop icons such Batman, Astro’s original incarnation had more than a hint of pathos: think Pinocchio meets Frankenstein meets Superman.
“It’s a classic superhero origin story,” explains Bowers. “We really find out what Astro Boy is and where he comes from. It’s a very emotional story. When I started this film I was keen on having something to hang all the action, adventure and comedy on, so I really went back to the father-son relationship between Astro and his father. Astro Boy is a robot created by a brilliant scientist to replace his dead son, and this film explores all the problems that come with attempting something like that.”
And it wouldn’t be a modern animated epic rendered, naturally, in 3-D CGI – without an impressive voice cast of recognizable stars. “We have a terrific cast,” said Bowers. “We have as Astro Boy Freddie Highmore from ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and he’s terrific in the role. As his father Dr. Tenma we have Nicolas Cage, we have Kristen Bell as our female lead Cora she plays one of the kids Astro meets when he’s thrown out of the city and lands in the junk piles and has to make his own way in the world. We have Nathan Lane as Ham Egg, a sort of Fagin-esque character. We have Eugene Levy as Orrin he’s a house robot. We have Bill Nighy as Dr. Elefun, the conscience of our movie and actually Bill has two roles in this movie because I worked with him on ‘Flushed Away’ and I love working with him so I cast him twice in this film. We have Matt Lucas playing a character called Sparks, who’s a new character who’s a robot revolutionary who’s actually pretty useless, and Bill plays one of his cohorts, Robotski, who’s also a very useless revolutionary.”
Also instrumental in bringing Astro Boy and the inhabitants of Metro City to life was character designer Luis Grane, a longtime fan of the character since his boyhood in Argentina. Grane drew inspiration from a disparate variety of sources, most specifically classic Japanese and Japanese American artists and sculptors employing simple shapes and structures that were in line with Tezuka’s original flat but evocative manga style. In attempting to translate that style into a 3-D form, Grane also incorporated philosophies from pre-Columbian art, specifically from Western Mexico where elongated shapes and caricature-ish elements abound shapes and styles that found their way into over 30 robots, both anthropomorphic and abstract, featured in the film.
But there the biggest challenge for Grane was Astro himself, and how to visualize the half-naked kid in jet boots for a modern audience.
“They wanted to make him a little bit older than the original one, to appeal to a broader audience, so we tried different things,” Grane explained. “One of the big issues was to have him with the classic costume, so there were concerns about a boy flying in underwear through the city. So we tried different clothes, different costumes.”
Ultimately, the result embodied the icon, but added bits of futuristic flair. “It’s our version, but we didn’t want to lose the essence of the character,” said Grane. “We tried to use the iconic features, like the X-ray vision, rocket boots, and the controversial cannons [in his rear end]. We were like ‘Should we use these? Is it going to look weird?’ But for me it was normal. I grew up with him of course he has butt cannons! So they’re in the movie.”
Bowers also introduced several nearly-finished scenes from the new film which appear to have successfully married the pathos and poignancy the director found in the original manga story with the pop-y whiz-bang of the TV series and all the high-tech animated bells and whistles today’s audience expects from both animated features and superhero epics.
In the first scene, Bowers explains: “Dr. Tenma has just lost his son Tobey he’s heartbroken and feel like it’s his fault. And this is his way of coping, his solution.” The director revealed a subtly told, noticeably dark sequence in which Tenma, against the best advice of his otherwise sympathetic colleagues, brings Astro Boy to life as a replacement, hoping to fill the aching void in his life.
In the second sequence unveiled, Bowers revealed: “Dr. Tenma takes Astro home and they go through sort of a normal day but things don’t work out as he expected. Astro’s a little bit different than Tobey and he’s disappointed, and he ends up eventually breaking the truth to Astro, that he’s not his son, that he’s a robot that looks like his son and he doesn’t want him anymore. And Astro’s heartbroken and flies out of the apartment, and when we catch up to him he’s sitting sort of coming to terms with the truth about what’s just happened. Astro’s tested his powers and learned that he can fly, and he showed up on the miltary’s sensors, and the military wants to try to get his blue core power source back.
The scenes show alternate from tragic to giddy to foreboding, as Astro discovers his abilities amid a complex and stunningly rendered vision of Metro City but draws attention from the military and President Stone (voiced by Donald Sutherland) that may be his undoing as he seeks out a new life and purpose.
In the final scene that Bower shared, Astro has already gone through several challenges and disappointments: “Astro ends up landing on the surface of Earth and has to sort of make his way,” said the director. “A lot happened and he runs into a bunch of kids who he befriends. He meets a guy called Ham Egg that he thinks could be another father for him. But eventually he has to make a choice: whether to help the people of Metro City or to just fly away from the people who haven’t treated him so well. In the meantime, President Stone has activated this thing called the Peacekeeper robot, which is Astro’s nemesis toward the end of this movie, and it’s an eight-foot-tall robot that has the ability to suck up anything around it it will suck up chairs, grab your guns, anything to use against you. It’s also absorbed President Stone, which is why it’s speaking in Donald Sutherland’s voice.”
In the action-packed sequence, Astro Boy emerges as a blockbuster level hero on par with any other superhero, even if he’s only wearing underwear. And you can just bet those rear-end missles are going to come into play.
Astro Boy hits theaters on October 23. Bower, Highmore, Bell and producer Maryann Garger will debut footage exclusive to Comic-Con and answer questions on Thursday, July 23rd from 10:45 a.m. to 11:15 a.m.in room 6BCF!