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Steamboy

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/18/05 22:34:20

"Simply the best anime film in years."
5 stars (Awesome)

Many films promise that they have something new and fantastic to deliver to increasingly jaded audiences. “Steamboy” is the rare film that actually makes good on that promise. Simply put, this one is a stunner–it tells a story that manages be simultaneously exciting and thought-provoking, it is simply gorgeous to look at and it provides viewers with the kind of audacious sights that take you back to the astonishment that you felt the first time you saw “Star Wars” or “2001" or the Disney animated epic of your choice.

“Steamboy” is the new anime film from renowned Japanese animator Katsuhiro Otomo, his first since he revolutionized the genre and put it on the map with 1988's landmark “Akira”. However, instead of once again telling a tale set against an oppressive post-apocalyptic world (a sub-genre that anime, largely influenced by “Akira”, has largely beaten to death), Otomo has set his story during another period of great technological leaps–Victorian England just before the onset of the Industrial Revolution. The film follows the adventures of Ray Steam, a pre-teen inventor who receives a package from his dotty grandfather containing a mysterious iron ball that houses a steam-driven energy device that can power almost anything. Since that “anything” includes ginormous weapons of war, a battle for possession of the ball breaks out between those who want to use its power for their own financial gain and those who want to prevent it from ever falling into the wrong hands. This leads to an astonishing extended climax in which two steam-powered armies, using devices that seem to have been jointly designed by Jules Verne and an especially creative six-year-old with an unlimited supply of Legos, reduce most of London and only Ray, his intelligence and the mysterious ball can possibly save the day.<

As someone who has grown a little weary with futuristic anime films, which mostly seem to be about robots trying to understand these things that humans call “emotions”, I found the charmingly retro look of “Steamboy” to be a blessed relief from the sleek, soulless style that usually dominates. Every frame of the film is so dazzling and packed with detail that I almost wished at time that I had a pause button so that I could explore some of the images in more detail. If there is a flaw to the film, however, it is that the look and the action is so astonishing that it threatens to overwhelm the more subtle aspects of the story; the film wants to send a message about the dangers of allowing aggressive technological advances to go out into the world unchecked, but that gets a little lost amidst the sheer visceral thrill generated from the outstanding battle scenes. That quibble aside, “Steamboy” is a gorgeous, creative wonder that is likely to be considered by anime fans and newcomers to be an instant classic.

One warning: Sony Pictures Classics have inexplicably chosen to release “Steamboy” in two different versions for its run at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema; during the day, it will play 105-minute English-dubbed version (featuring the voices of Anna Paquin, Patrick Stewart and Alfred Molina) while the last evening show will show Otomo’s original 120-minute Japanese-language version. Having only seen the shorter, Americanized version, I cannot fairly compare the two, except to suggest that a couple of awkward transitions in the early scenes are probably a result of the cutting. As dub tracks go, the English-language version here is just fine (and unlike live-action films, all animation is dubbed anyway so the effect isn’t as jarring) but I suspect that the hard-core fans will want to wait for the late shows.

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