Freddie Highmore as Astro Boy
Kristen Bell as the voice of Cora
Donald Sutherland as General Stone
Nicolas Cage as the voice of Dr. Tenma
Bill Nighy as the voice of Dr. Elefun
Nathan Lane as the voice of Ham Egg
Eugene Levy as the voice of Orrin
Matt Lucas as the voice of Sparx
Samuel L. Jackson as the voice of Zog
Directed by David Bowers
As anime continues on its pop-culture upward swing and the various amounts of modern popular characters to be licensed and brought to the States get burned through, it’s inevitable that some of the classics that made Manga and Anime what they are will get revived and reinterpreted for us along the way. After all, if they worked once there’s no reason they won’t work again, right?
At some point in the near future, a group of (literally) enlightened citizens have fitted engines onto the last pristine piece of land on earth and lifted it into the clouds, leaving the scrap heaps of earth behind, with every whim of its citizen’s lives taken care of by robots. Robots brought to life through the genius of Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage) who is so lost in research he never really notices his brilliant son Tobey. That is, until his son is lost. Then he does what any grieving, brilliant, mad robot scientist father would do; he builds a robotic version of his dead son, Astro (Freddie Highmore).
The American version of what is, ostensibly, the first Manga, is unfortunately quite typical. The first animated film produced by young studio Summit Entertainment has a lot of the problems first animated films have. It has had a lot of resources thrown at it–it looks fantastic with some beautiful CGI courtesy of DreamWorks Animation and Aardman alumni David Bowers (“Flushed Away”) and a boatload of recognizable voice talent–but not quite enough thought.
It’s the abundance of resources that are ultimately holding it back, actually. Without the wealth of animation experience Pixar or DreamWorks Animation were able to bring to their first films they’ve put all their faith in their director, allowing him to co-write the film and giving him more or less free rein over it.
Generally, that’s a good thing. It allows for the freedom of artistic expression and coherent vision without quite as much of the infighting and compromise that is inherent in the group process that is professional filmmaking. But, and this is the important bit, that only works if the would-be auteur in question has the talent and/or skill to make something out of his vision.
There are a lot of independent auteurs out there with complete artistic control over their would-be masterpieces and the results are frankly awful. “Astro Boy” isn’t that, but Bowers inexperience on the story end of things shines throughout the film. The end result is pretty but plain. Like most modern animated films Bowers is trying to make two films, one for the kids and one for the adults, and he’s only really successful at one of those.
The hawkish warlike President of the city (Donald Sutherland) needs a power source for his new super war machine for protecting the people of the city from the citizens of the world below, despite the fact the people below couldn’t possibly begin to conceive of posing a threat to the city.
If you think you’re noticing some not very subtle political commentary in there, that’s because you are. The two potential energy sources are the peaceful, productive blue energy and the destructive rapacious red energy. Naturally the short-sighted President puts the ‘evil’ red energy into his indestructible killing robot and is amazed when it all goes wrong.
It’s not all as heavy-handed as that. Astro Boy’s introduction to the world around him and discovery that he is in fact a robot is quite evocative. Particularly his would-be father comes to the realization that the thing he has created can’t really replace his lost son and regardless of what it may feel he must get rid of it. The pain of keeping it around is just too great.
That’s some complex, engrossing stuff and in contrast to some of the cheap political shots it’s handled quite nicely. But it’s also about as far as “Astro Boy” is prepared to go, and that’s just the first 30 minutes. The rest of it… if you’ve seen even one other animated film in your life, then you’ve seen “Astro Boy.”
He’s quickly thrown out to the world below, which it turns out is filled with robot comic relief and scrappy kids in the employ of Fagin-like mechanic Ham Egg (Nathan Lane) who collects robots for his own ends. There are some valuable lessons about choosing one’s place and dealing with the natural human emotions of alienation and loneliness. These are things kids are going through, so they are relevant, but it’s still hard for a kid’s film not come across as shallow and unimaginative when all of their characters are ‘outsiders just looking for their place in the world.’ It’s the character type that’s done the most because it’s the easiest, and ease doesn’t always lend itself to quality or interest.
There actually is quite a bit of solid craft at work in “Astro Boy.” The performances, both vocal and visual, are solid throughout and it captures a lot space-age styling of the source material, even if the tone is somewhat different.
But it feels rushed, ill-prepared and derivative. And that’s because it is rushed, ill-prepared and derivative. It’s not a particularly bad kid’s film. It will do passing well until something better comes along. But something as creative and influential as “Astro Boy” probably deserves better than just a quick trip down CGI-Kids-Film lane. That’s all you’re going to get, though.