Anna Paquin/Anne Suzuki as Ray Steam
Alfred Molina/ Masane Tsukayama as Eddie Steam
Patrick Stewart/Katsuo Nakamura as Lloyd Steam
Kari Wahlgren/Manami Konishi as Scarlett
Robin Atkin Downes/Ikki Sawamura as David
Rick Zieff/Satoru Saito as Simon
Kim Thomson as Mother
Mark Bramhall/Susumu Terajima as Alfred
Oliver Cotton as Robert Stephenson

After far too long a wait between movies, Otomo continues his reign as the George Lucas of Anime!

In 19th Century England, the Steam family is made up of three generations of inventor that have found new ways of harnessing steam power for various uses. When the youngest of them, Ray, discovers his grandfather’s invention, the Steam Ball, he gets caught in the middle of a feud between his father Eddie and grandfather Lloyd, who disagree on the best way to use this new technology, an argument that has driven Ray’s father quite mad.

When it comes to Japanese animation or Anime, there are two names that lead the pack: Hayao Miyazaki and Katsuhiro Otomo. While the former has received much acclaim in the States in recent years, it was the latter’s 1988 classic Akira that paved the way for Anime to be so highly appreciated here, and his influence can still be seen in most modern animation coming out of both Japan and the US. Surprisingly, Steamboy is the first animated feature film directed by Otomo since Akira, and while at first, its 19th Century England setting may seem like a departure, it’s still very much science fiction.

The film’s protagonist Ray Steam is an industrious young boy from Manchester, England whose father and grandfather have disappeared on an expedition. When he receives a mysterious package containing something called a “steam ball,” he is chased through the streets by thugs from the “O’Hara Foundation” riding a spectacular steam-powered machine. Ray is ultimately captured, and when he wakes up, he finds that he has been transported to a large “steam castle” just outside London, where the Great Exhibition is about to begin. He’s also reunited with his father Eddie, voiced by Alfred Molina, who has become quite the mad megalomaniac, wearing a mask bearing that makes him look like the Broadway version of the Phantom of the Opera.

Steamboy asks the question on whether science fiction can take place in the past, and Otomo proves that it most certainly can by instilling the era with the sort of larger-than-life storytelling and cool gadgets that one comes to expect from Anime. The steam-powered vehicles and weapons may remind some of stinkers like Wild Wild West or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but the design and look veers more towards the cool retro-futurism of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. There are more than a few moments that make you realize that this is an Otomo film like the similarities between the Steam Castle (dubbed “Steam Tower” in the subtitled version) and an idea used by Otomo during the framing sequence from the Anime anthology Robot Carnival. Otomo isn’t content just making a cool action-adventure though, using the premise to explore the dangers of using technology and science before their time, as well as making a subtle commentary about the politics of war.

True Anime fans tend to snub their noses at dubbed versions of the animated films, maybe because the dubbing may change the original vision of the film’s director. Having seen both versions, there are some notable improvements in the dubbed version of Steamboy that surpasses the original subtitled version. It’s hard to determine how much of the film has been rewritten for the dubbed version, but it certainly flows better and it doesn’t seem to drag as much.

Like Mizayaki, Otomo is one of the few animators that can make you forget that you’re watching an animated film. His amazing imagination and animation team are able to create a sort of hyperrealism, and without having to read those pesky subtitles, you can really concentrate on the gorgeous visuals and Otomo’s proclivity for huge, wanton destruction. There are scenes in Steamboy that would make Roland Emmerich turn green with envy, whether it be a locomotive being torn apart by a giant clawed zeppelin or the climactic last twenty minutes of the movie that has to be seen to be believed. All of these pivotal moments are made more exciting by a fantastic score by Steve Jablonsky and some great sound effects work, which seem to have been better mixed for the American version.

Most importantly, the film’s Great Britain setting works better when the characters speak in English with British accents, and Steamboy has a very impressive cast bringing Otomo’s characters to life. The two elder Steams, Eddie and Lloyd, are voiced by Alfred Molina and Patrick Stewart respectively, both bringing so much more to the parts than their Japanese counterparts, and how cool is it to have more than a few scenes where Doc Ock and Professor X face off against each other? Stewart’s X-Men pupil Anna Paquin isn’t quite as tolerable as the young Ray Steam, since the character comes off a bit like a young Analkin Skywalker with a British accent, but few will even realize that she’s providing the voice for Ray since it sounds nothing like her.

On the other hand, both versions are often in danger of being ruined by a spoiled American girl named Scarlett, head of the O’Hara Foundation-it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the reference–who spends most of the film running around yelling for her manservant Simon. It’s the type of cutesy comic relief that is so prominent in Anime, and what often keeps it from being taken seriously by anyone but the most diehard fans.

The Bottom Line:
Steamboy may not have the lasting power of Akira, but that’s only because there have been over 15 years of imitators that has lessened the impact of JapAnimation. Regardless, Otomo proves that he can still be an innovator with this intelligent retro sci-fi film.

Steamboy opens in select cities on Friday.