Osamu Tezuka's classic anime finds itself given a new life in CG form from Imagi Animation.
What They Say:
Astro Boy follows the adventures of a young-yet-powerful robot who, in the hopes of winning his inventor-father’s heart, sets off on a quest to rid the world of evil. However, he soon discovers that his home, Metro City, stands on the brink of destruction, and it is up to him to save the day as well as his friends and family.
Astro Boy has long been a well known property in the US, though it has become more of a nostalgic series in the last decade or so for the fans who grew up with it on TV when they were children. When Imagi Animation got involved with creating a new movie, their particular CG style of animation seemed well suited to taking Osamu Tezuka's original work and breathing a new life into it for a new generation. And with Imagi taking the helm of another anime classic with Gatchaman that is a bit more serious and dealing with older characters, Astro Boy is a litmus test to see how well they can do.
My experienced with Astro Boy in previous incarnations is pretty minimal simply because it wasn't part of my generation and the anime I've seen from that time period have been unappealing, including the episodes of Astro Boy I've seen. I've enjoyed many other works by Osamu Tezuka, but Astro Boy never clicked. So I went into the film with a pretty open mind – and with my kids in tow – because I have no real attachment to the original. What I have an attachment to is Tezuka's particular style of design, the worlds he creates and the kind of wonder he infused in so many of his works.
Astro Boy takes place in a future where the planet has fallen to severe ecological ruin, where everything has collapsed. One city saw what was coming though and through their high technology and copious use of robots, they took their city to the sky and lived above the clouds in a utopia where their robots do most everything. They're treated as simple tools that get the job done, even with the rather diverse and interesting personalities many of them have. Metro City has little regard for the world below and treats it as a waste dump for all their outdated robots and other electronics, uncaring about who or what may be trying to eke out an existence down there.
Metro City is in the midst of an election and President Stone is doing his best to ensure his victory. And that includes using some newly discovered power sources, a negative red energy and a positive blue energy, to power his Peacekeeper so he can declare war on the surface world so people flock to his side. Against their better judgment, doctor Tenma and doctor Elefun agree to this and power up the Peacekeeper. Unsurprisingly, when using only the red energy, it goes berserk and starts to absorb everything in the area. In an attempt to get free, it blasts heavily and ends up killing Tenma's genius thirteen year old son Tobi. This causes Tenma to later decide he'll recreate his son through the use of the positive energy with the most advanced robot he can design with multiple defensive and offensive weapons so he'd never be hurt.
Astro Boy goes in a pretty straightforward direction where the revived Tobi as Astro isn't quite the same boy he was and that causes Tenma to not want him any longer. Astro ends up on a journey of self discovery, spending time down on the surface world where he befriends some human kids his own age while hiding what he is as well as making friends with a group known as the Robot Revolutionary Front that's pretty ineffective. He's naturally drawn back to Metro City where he has to deal with President Stone's machinations to achieve his desired election results, which occur with the negative red energy really causing quite a few problems for everyone.
Clocking in at just over ninety minutes, Astro Boy runs through some fairly predictable material, which isn't too much of a surprise as it's an origin story. In some ways, I did see some Superman parallels here and there with how he hands his discovery of abilities, the way he uses some of them and his sense of justice and doing what's right. Astro is a very good guy in the classic sense, but one that will take the fight to the bad guy with no regrets either. Because of this, adults may not find all that much to really connect with here. There's a lot of style, not overdone or blunt, but it's not backed up by a huge amount of emotion or plot. Like a lot of CG films, it's missing that human element to really make it work. That said, for kids, it may work wonders. I saw this on opening day with about two dozen kids in the audience, all young, as well as my own kids. Both of my talked about how parts of it made them sad, lots of it made them laugh along with it and they came out of it really hyped for it – and upset. Upset at the tease of an ending that even I'll admit left me wanting to see THAT movie.
With a production like this, a lot rides on the voice performances of the film. For some people, that's the big selling point so they can hear their favorite actors in something very different. A lot of this cast is really pretty good at what they do. Freddie Highmore managed to really do a spot on job with Astro himself and I think Kristen Bell did a good job with Cora, the human girl he befriends on the surface world who has her own issues. They're not deep characters and they wear some of their emotions on their sleeves, but they sell their roles rather well. Most of the cast is pretty much average in what they do in that they don't detract from the film and blend into their roles well enough. Donald Sutherland definitely stands out with his voice but he fits the role of President Stone in action and the command of his voice.
The two roles I had a real problem with were Dr. Tenma and Hamegg. Nicholas Cage is completely miscast as Astro's father because in this particular role, he really can't seem to express the right emotions when his son dies or in how he expresses his grief through building Astro. His voice doesn't fit that of the doctor in the slightest and makes it very hard to sell that particular moment as it's devoid of any emotion. It's too cold considering what he ends up doing. With Hamegg, a robot repairman living on the surface world, being voiced by Nathan Lane makes him distinct but it also looks like they took a lot of visual cues from him in designing the character. That won't bother the kids who haven't a clue, but it jars you out of the film heavily because all you hear is Lane, not Hamegg.
Despite its flaws, I enjoyed Astro Boy a good deal because it's flashy, moves at a good pace and has a fun story overall. It's respectful of what the classic is about in many ways, updates well to this particular brand of CG animation that Imagi uses and has a good voice cast for the most part. I went into the film with very low expectations for a number of reasons but I smiled a lot throughout it and left with a very positive feeling about it, buoyed by the number of kids leaving that were all smiles and excited about what they saw. I doubt this will go over well with anime fans and I get the feeling it'll fall low for most movie fans, especially since it's about a good guy who is just that and not an anti-hero. When they had to make Superman dark in order to try and sell him, it says a lot about where leading characters are these days. In the end, Astro Boy is going to be a guilty pleasure I think as I'm looking forward to the home video release to check it out again.