Reviewby Zac Bertschy, Jul 21st 2004
The year is 1866. It's the eve of the World Expo, a technological showcase in Victorian England. Ray Steam, a mechanically-inclined lad living in London, is caught in a maelstrom of danger when a mysterious package containing the enigmatic Steam Ball is sent to his house courtesy of his grandfather, Lloyd. Lloyd is desperate to keep the Steam Ball out of the hands of the O'Hara Foundation, a colossal enterprise dedicated to technological progress headed up by a mysterious figure who's connected to Ray in more ways than one. They need the Steam Ball to power a mechanical monster unlike anything the world has ever seen…and it's up to Ray to stop them!
Katsuhiro Otomo's epic Steamboy cost 20.2 million dollars to make, took 180,000 cels to produce and ate up the last ten solid years of Otomo's life. The hype surrounding this film is unreal; could the director of Akira, one of the most popular anime films ever, live up to his own legacy? The answer, thankfully, is a resounding yes. Steamboy outclasses all of Otomo's other films and most of his competitors' films; this is an instant classic, something to be loved and remembered by audiences of every shape and size.
Steamboy is a quality production from almost every angle, but it's important to take those angles one at a time to fully appreciate what Otomo and his staff have accomplished here. Firstly and most importantly, Steamboy excels in the storytelling department. Gone are the confusingly labyrinthine plot machinations of Otomo's other films; Steamboy is a straight-shooting, easy-to-follow adventure tale. It's never confusing; characters' motives are almost always laid out for the audience. It's a very successful experiment in Western-style storytelling, something that hasn't been done (outside of, say, Studio Ghibli's various successes, but even those films suffer from esoteric references and somewhat alienating storylines) in Japan in recent memory. The film gives you someone to root for, someone to hate, someone to laugh at and a simple philosophical question to ponder about the nature of progress; it's a complete package.
While clearly trying to emulate Western-style blockbuster plot structures, Steamboy still retains enough of a Japanese sensibility to imbue itself with a simple philosophical question that drives the film's narrative. Ray is torn between two sides. His grandfather Lloyd, whose valiant struggle to keep the Steam ball out of the hands of the O'Hara foundation symbolizes his (often speechified) “science for the good of man” philosophy. The head of the O'Hara foundation (whose identity would be unfair to reveal) clashes with Lloyd, his “science for science's sake” manta driving the film's villainy, which is, in typical Japanese-bad-guy fashion, well-meaning but misguided and ultimately destructive. Ray has to reconcile these two all while putting to rest the O'Hara Foundation's Steam Castle, a Laputa-like structure made entirely of cogs and monstrous machines that excites the imagination and helps Otomo's philosophical argument. It's like the best of both worlds: thought-provoking, intelligent Japanese-style themes combined with exciting, Western-style action set pieces and pacing, minus all the problems that usually accompany these two filmic forms. Simply put, it's a masterpiece.
Visually, the film is a banquet. They've successfully combined 2D and 3D here in a technique reminiscent of Mamoru Oshii's visually striking Ghost in the Shell: Innocence. The lushly-detailed Victorian setting is a brilliant backdrop for an action movie, and the crew spared no expense bringing it to life. The film uses CG sparingly, relying mostly on highly advanced and beautifully animated traditional animation. There's nary an animation misstep to be found in this film; the raging combat sequence during the film's first climax is proof that they set out to make a breathtaking film, and have succeeded. The fact that the film has another climax after the first and continues to pull out new tricks to surprise the viewer is simply icing on the cake. Most importantly, the visuals serve the story; too often in big-budget action films like this we see the storyline concoct a series of disappointing contrivances in order to ratchet up the action. Steamboy carefully avoids this pitfall and forces the visuals to tell the story rather than guide it.
The film isn't flawless, but it's close. By the time the two-hour mark hits, you'll be about ready to say goodbye to Ray's world, but the film trundles on for a while longer. That's not to say the film is dull, but the pacing does feel a little stretched towards the end, and a few things are restated that didn't necessarily need to be. Steamboy could easily lose 10 minutes or so off the end, but those 10 minutes don't cripple the film in any significant way; the fact that this is the film's lone flaw says more in its favor than against it.
Otomo has really accomplished something here; he's the first Japanese auteur outside of Studio Ghibli to successfully bridge the culture gap between American and Japanese film, creating something that's a successful hybrid of both mediums and will entertain the pants off of both audiences. Steamboy is a masterpiece, something that should be celebrated in theaters, loved by anime fans, non-fans and families alike; don't miss this, not for the world.
Overall : A
Story : A
Animation : A+
Art : A+
Music : A
+ A whiz-bang adventure story that will charm the crap out of you.
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