Reviewby Zac Bertschy, Oct 19th 2009
In the distant future, where society exists on a floating pristine island above a ruined, polluted earth, the brilliant scientist Dr. Tenma loses his kid Toby in an accident during a military weapons test and in his ensuing despair builds an advanced robot version of Toby, complete with advanced defensive capabilities so he'll never be in harm's way again. But robot Toby just isn't the same, and Dr. Tenma renounces him, to the disappointment of Dr. Elefun, a benevolent scientist who harnessed the top-secret energy core that powers Astro… which is, naturally, sought after by the warmongering President Stone, who wants the core to power his new mega-powered military robot, The Peacekeeper.
In the past decade or so, it's safe to say that American theatrical animation – through the power of CG – has experienced something of a renaissance. While most would credit this solely to the artists at Pixar, there have been plenty of other remarkable animated features to come out of the other studios – Sony and Dreamworks have both offered up a handful of films each that were quite funny, charming, well-written and sophisticated, with carefully crafted scripts that have appeal to both a child and adult audience.
Unfortunately, there's also been a lot of chaff – films that perform only as digital babysitters, shiny distractions with no real meat to them and not a lot to draw in an adult audience craving a good story and solid filmmaking. While Astro Boy – effectively, an American take on Tezuka's beloved original manga – doesn't quite deserve the ‘digital babysitter’ label, and it is certainly well-intentioned, it's hard to categorize it as anything other than a somewhat mediocre and ultimately forgettable experience.
Essentially, what we have here is a reworked version of Astro Boy's origin story. It's set in a dystopian future where earth has been polluted beyond reason and a small segment of privileged society builds a utopian island (creatively named “Metro City”) that floats above the earth's ruined surface, with a slave class of robots serving their every whim (and no, the inevitable Wall-E comparisons don't end there). Dr. Tenma, played by a subdued Nicholas Cage, has a plucky young genius son named Toby who gets killed during an accident involving the Peacemaker, a giant military robot that's powered by one of two energy cores discovered by the kind and wise Dr. Elefun (naturally, there's one that harnesses “good” power, and that one's blue, and then “evil” power, and that one's red). President Stone, the cartoonish evil politician with a thirst for war, obviously wants to use the red core to power Peacemaker, and in the resulting mishap, little Toby gets turned into a pile of ash.
And so an insanely depressed Dr. Tenma builds an advanced robot version of Toby, powered by the benevolent blue energy core, with “advanced defensive systems” like rocket legs, super strength and arm cannons so he'll never be in harm's way again. But it isn't long before Tenma realizes that this robot version of Toby – even though he's imbued with Toby's memories and personality – will never fill the hole in his heart, and so he basically rejects him, telling President Stone that he'll remove Astro's blue core so it can be used in the Peacemaker robot. Stone's forces fail to capture the robot boy, sending him into hiding on the surface of the Earth.
As it turns out, Earth isn't a total wasteland; sure, there are giant towers of junk everywhere (sound familiar?), but society there continues, inexplicably in the form of a ragtag army of kids that rally around the exiled robot technician Hamegg. Astro immediately befriends a group of tough-but-lovable children who don't know he's a robot, specifically the oh-so-spunky-and-independent Cora, whose parents live in Metro City and left her behind. Hamegg, much to Astro's dismay, turns out to be the operator of a robot Roman Circus, a gladiator-style combat show where customized robots beat the scrap out of eachother to the delight of the blood (oil?) thirsty surface-dwelling audience. Hamegg discovers Astro's secret and forces him into combat, which reveals his identity to Cora and the gang, which is of course precisely when President Stone's forces show up and capture Astro, who then has to save Metro City from the marauding Peacemaker who is once again powered by the red energy core (which they had laying around this entire time and didn't really need Astro's core to get the thing moving).
It might sound like there's some potential here for thematic depth, given the story's tragic underpinnings and flirtation with exploring sophisticated themes about humanity, but this version of Astro Boy basically glosses over all that in favor of being a funny action cartoon for kids, something that would feel right at home at 6pm on Nickelodeon after a Jimmy Neutron marathon. And that's fine, but it's all very surface-level stuff. The film's messages are spelled out quite literally in the dialogue: “I guess fitting in when you're different from everyone else is harder to do than I thought!” remarks Astro at one point, stopping short of looking straight into the camera and saying “Get it, kids?”
It also tries really, really hard to be funny – there are no fewer than five comedy sidekick characters, including a weak running gag about a hapless “Robot Resistance” movement headed up by three bumbling robots who plan lame attempts at striking back against their human masters. There's potential there but the gag feels tacked on, like the film was running short and so let's add in unnecessary comedy sidekicks to pad it out. That their frequent, extended appearances feel so superfluous and add nothing at all to the story only heightens that feeling.
All of the film's problems lie in the script, which is a bit of a clunker and has some pretty big plot holes, especially near the end; the climax is a doozy, really. We're told at the beginning of the film that if the red core and the blue core come in contact with one another, the result would end the world. President Stone knows that, as he's in the room while it's being discussed, and yet in the final act, he's rampaging around Metro City trying to absorb Astro Boy's blue core into the Peacemaker's red core. Why? Doesn't he know that's going to end the world? Then Dr. Tenma shows up and tells us that if Astro is absorbed by the Peacemaker, it'll simply kill them both. So I guess that “end the world” thing is out, but again, the President thinks that at the very least it'll destroy the world, which is not his motivation at all (he's trying to win an election, as he will remind you every 30 seconds when he's on screen). So what the hell?
It's stuff like that that ultimately mars an otherwise passable kids' film. The artistry is fine, if a tad generic (Pixar basically said “here's how you do human characters in CG movies” with The Incredibles and that's pretty much what we have here), the animation is fine for a movie that clearly isn't attempting to push the envelope technologically, and there are a small handful of visual Tezuka shout-outs hidden in the backgrounds.
Ultimately, while it feels like there could've been a lot more to this – certainly the material has been adapted before with results that feel a bit less sanitized for a very young audience – it's not a bad film, just a pretty flawed and not particularly memorable one, especially for adults. This could've been a lot better than it is.
Overall : C+
Story : C
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B
+ Decent artistry and passable animation; story doesn't completely toss out the original's tragic elements
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