Japan’s favorite robot kid flies, but doesn’t soar, in Americanized version
Directed by David Bowers
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Freddie Highmore, Donald Sutherland
It seems odd, in such a rabidly anime- and manga-literate culture—where practically every new pop-culture entry is stumbling over itself to emulate the style found in Japanese cartoons and comics—that we’d need such a watered-down, Americanized version of a Japanese classic like Astro Boy. But that’s exactly what Imagi Animation Studios, the folks behind the 2007 CGI version of TMNT, thought.
Directed and co-written by Brit animator David Bowers (who worked on such saw-it-and-forgot-it toons as Flushed Away, The Prince of Egypt, Balto, We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story and FernGully: The Last Rainforest), Astro Boy replicates a plot point or two from “God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka’s seminal sci-fi work but fails to capture the master’s enduring flavor.
“Astro Boy” (known as “Mighty Atom” in Japan) was first published as a manga in 1952 and achieved anime form in 1963. At the height of its popularity, an estimated 40 percent of the Japanese population was watching the televised adventures of “Astro Boy” on a weekly basis. Various reruns and remakes in both comic and cartoon forms have kept the name alive in the hearts and minds of fanboys and fangirls for decades.
Tinkered with, updated and upgraded within an inch of its life, the 2009 version of Astro Boy starts off with a suspiciously overloaded voice cast. Nicolas Cage, Charlize Theron, Samuel L. Jackson, Kristen Bell, Donald Sutherland, Nathan Lane, Bill Nighy and Freddie Highmore are our first sign that the filmmakers are trying too hard. The success of the recent family toon Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs more than proved that A-list actors aren’t a necessary ingredient of a quality animated film. No 7-year-old in the audience is watching the opening credits and thinking, “Academy Award-winning South African model-turned-actress Charlize Theron? This is gonna be sweet.”
Things start off promisingly enough in the dazzling, futuristic, floating enclave of Metro City, where lazy humans are catered to by a massive underclass of menial labor robots. Although life in Metro City is good for the pampered residents, the city’s warmongering president General Stone (Sutherland) is in the midst of a tough re-election campaign. He figures building a big new weapon and finding a new war to fight is the only way to win public support. (Sure, we were all kind of tired of George W. Bush, Hollywood, but times have changed. You really need to find a new target to vilify.) Stone turns to his top scientists for help: Dr. Tenma (Cage), who has built a fancy new robotic killing machine, and Dr. Elefun (Nighy), who has discovered a powerful new form of energy. Actually, Elefun has discovered two new forms of energy: “positive” blue energy and “negative” red energy. The blue stuff is good, but the red stuff is pure evil. Evil energy? Um, OK. Naturally, Stone decides to power Tenma’s robot with evil energy, a mistake that results in the death of Tenma’s teenage son Toby (Highmore).
Heartbroken and a bit unstable, Tenma builds a robot version of Toby—a super-powered, machine gun-equipped, flying re-creation of his offspring. (Hey, it sounded like a good idea at the time.) Though this new mechanical version has all the memories of Toby, he’s just not a real human, and Tenma soon turns his back on his resurrected “son.”
Bowers and his crew manage to invoke a few of the sad, conflicted emotions from Tezuka’s original narrative, but the film quickly gets distracted from its father-son drama and wanders off in several contradictory directions. Unwilling to settle on one preachy moral, Astro Boy delivers a baker’s dozen. In short order, Toby/Astro stumbles off the edge of Metro City and ends up on the nearly abandoned, trash-strewn surface of Earth. This conjures up unflattering comparisons to last year’s WALL·E. Smooth as the animation in Astro Boy might be, it ain’t nearly in the same league as Pixar.
Abandoning the evil president / crazy dad story line for a good, long time, Astro Boy adds some goofy, revolutionary robots and a bunch of ragamuffin kids led by what I’m pretty sure is a goth-style Bratz doll (Kristen Bell). Stealing most of its remaining plot from the crummy 2005 CGI toon Robots, the film offers up a whole bunch of new themes: recycling and protection of natural resources, class warfare, economic exploitation, self-identity, racism, the overthrow of slavery. Bits and pieces of it are taken from Tezuka’s long-running narrative, but it feels like exactly that: bits and pieces. There’s an awful lot of heavy-handed sociopolitical allegory on display for a kids’ film—including some overt, out-of-place pleas for Marxist rebellion. (Huh?) None of it is delivered with the slightest bit of subtlety. (Of course, any time you hire Nicolas Cage and Nathan Lane, it’s clear “subtlety” isn’t among your primary intentions.)
Production design on the film is solid. It’s clear that some effort went into giving Astro Boy a consistent and distinctive look, with its shiny blue tint and towering, smooth-edged architecture. But most of the other decisions that went into the film smack of filmmakers who were too eager to please the masses and not confident enough to stick to their guns. Or even somebody else’s guns, for that matter.