by Mel Valentin
In Japan, “Astro Boy,” Osamu Tezuka’s (a.k.a. the “God of Manga”) Pinocchio-inspired robotic creation, has been a pop culture icon for close to sixty years. Tezuka introduced Astro Boy (“Mighty Atom”) in a manga (comic book) series in 1952. Nine years later, Astro Boy debuted on television in a black-and-white animated series that ran for four seasons and 193 episodes. An English-dubbed version followed later in the decade. Astro Boy returned series television in the 1980s and again earlier this decade and now, more than half a century after Tezuka put pen to paper and created Astro Boy, a computer-animated, feature-length film, "Astro Boy," produced by Hong Kong-based Imagi Animation Studios (the forthcoming "Gatchaman," "TMNT") and directed and co-written by David Bowers ("Flushed Away").Set partly in a Wall-E-like future where the Haves live in the futuristic Metro City high above the surface and the Have-Nots live as scavengers on the junk-crowded surface, robots provide practically every essential and non-essential service. Dr. Tenma (voiced by Nicolas Cage), the director of the Ministry of Science and the father of modern robotics, willingly sets aside moral and ethical concerns in exchange for funding his robotics projects from Metro City’s elected leader, the Bush-like General Stone (Donald Sutherland). Concerned about his rapidly fading chances of reelection, Stone orders Tenma to speed up production on their latest robot, the Peacekeeper. With the “blue-core/red-core” power source discovered by another scientist, Dr. Elefun (Bill Nighy), Stone plans on starting a war with the surface dwellers on a flimsy pretext.
"It's a retro-future all over again."
When the Peacekeeper experiment goes awry, Tenma loses his son, Toby (Freddie Highmore). Grief-stricken, Tenma creates a robot in Toby’s image, using Toby’s DNA and memories, as well as Elefun’s blue-core power source. Tenma soon regrets his decision to create a Toby-bot and banishes him. Learning of the blue-core powered Toby-bot’s existence, General Stone sends the military to capture the robot. Injured in the confrontation, the robot falls to the surface. There, he meets Cora (Kristen Bell), a preteen girl, and her friends, Zane (Moises Arias), Sludge (Sterling Beaumon), Widget (Madeline Carroll), and Grace (Carroll again). He gets a new name, “Astro” (he’s never called “Astro Boy”) and a new benefactor/father figure, Ham Egg (Nathan Lane), a former Ministry of Science employee who now runs a robot-repair shop.
As the first film in a potential franchise, Astro Boy covers the obligatory elements found in superhero origin stories, e.g., Astro Boy’s “conception” and “birth,” Astro Boy’s loss of innocence, the discovery of his identity as a robot and his super-powered abilities (e.g., flying, super-strength, super-hearing, etc.), rejection by a father figure, his literal fall from grace, the discovery of new friends, and a new purpose as a super-powered hero (despite initial anti-robot prejudice). Along the way, Astro Boy does battle with several robots, some of them gigantic (the better for Imagi’s animators to flex their CG muscles), and reconciles with his “true” father. Life lesson are learned, of course, and the repurposed environmentalism theme (from Wall-E) gets a perfunctory shout-out, if more obliquely than expected for a children’s animated film.Thematically, "Astro Boy" may be too heavy emotionally for small children. Toby clearly dies (if quickly in an explosion), Tenma’s grief over his son and, later, his cold rejection of Toby’s robotic creation, will pull preteen heartstrings and probably result in awkward questions by children for their parents after, or even during, the screening. That aside, however, Astro Boy’s fans will be pleased with Astro Boy’s big-screen debut, if mostly visually (as opposed to narratively). Bowers and his animators only slightly modified Astro Boy’s look (the shorts, boots, and hair are still there), while also keeping Dr. Tenma’s familiar features and Dr. Elefun’s bulbous nose. Metro City has been designed with rounded, art-deco-inspired, retro-futuristic corners. It’s suitably impressive, as are the designs for the many robots Astro Boy encounters on his hero’s journey.
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originally posted: 10/23/09 19:46:48