The Boy Who Could Fly
As a way of acquainting stateside audiences with Japanese animation, Astro Boy isn't half bad. Heaven knows Dragonball Evolution didn't do the trick, so it's up to this sci-fi number to pick up the slack. It's an adventure guaranteed to dazzle the young ones with frenetic pacing and a hero resembling a pre-pubescent Inspector Gadget. The film also deserves credit for reaching out to the parental units in the crowd, though it's here where the flick's greatest weaknesses show. Astro Boy goes at a mile a minute, but a closer glance reveals it to be running in place.
Welcome to Metro City. While our planet has become a polluted shell of its former self, this floating metropolis serves as a symbol of how mankind has reaped what technology has sown. One of Metro City's greatest minds, Dr. Tenma (voice of Nicolas Cage), has just discovered a new energy source with plenty of kick and no harm to the environment. But during a demonstration of this new power, the good doctor's son, Toby (voice of Freddie Highmore), is unfortunately caught in the fray. Unwilling to move on, Tenma pulls a Lee Majors on Toby and resurrects him as a robotic boy wonder. Our lad takes fast to his new armaments, which will serve him well when the tyrannical President Stone (voice of Donald Sutherland) casts his bid for world domination.
Astro Boy's roots are tied to the pages of a popular manga series and equally successful TV show. My knowledge of both is scant, though a little research shows that the crew of Imagi Studios has preserved the character's general design. These are the same folks who brought us 2007s animated Ninja Turtles reboot, and while that movie's look still doesn't sit well with me, Astro Boy seems presented with much higher polish. Though set in the future, the design is undeniably retro, echoing what folks in the '50s thought things would probably look like now. Metro City is a chrome-encrusted playland, though Toby's ensuing adventures on Earth show it to be a pretty lively junkheap itself. These worlds appear pretty darn snazzy, and there's no end to the mechanized merriment that populate both.
Indeed, Astro Boy packs enough visual firepower to win over the most jaded third-grader. But the film still left me feeling empty, ironically spurned by how it tried to fill the void other family films ignore. At Astro Boy's core are some complex themes, most of all the blurring of man and machine. Tenma doesn't immediately accept his roboticized son, who ends up having to fight for his approval. It's a great way of getting those adults in attendance involved, but the film's more juvenile antics cram in quite a wedge. The story is daring enough to combine elements of RoboCop and Oliver Twist but not so much as to toy with anything but their most basic ingredients. Also, the political satire comes across as laughably heavy-handed (two guesses as to who Stone is modeled after), and the voice acting as a whole is alarmingly dull. You can practically picture Cage recording his lines at the bank where he's cashing his paycheck.
However, I still give kids the go-ahead for Astro Boy. It has its fun moments, and if anything, this movie might inspire them to dive deeper into its source material and the wide, weird world of anime in general. But while Astro Boy may shoot for the moon, it's as bland and ordinary as anything else you'd find on terra firma.
MY RATING: ** (out of ****)
(Released by Summit Entertainment and rated "PG" for some action and peril, and brief mild language.)