Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/05/05 13:35:29

"One for the kids. And maybe just the kids."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2005 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: There are two routes to go when adapting a comic book or cartoon for live action. Generally, with comics, the filmmakers try to bring the characters into our world. Certainly, there are exceptions (hello, "Sin City"), but look at how hard recent superhero movies have worked to tweak the costumes into something that can at least appear to exist in the real world. On the other hand, films based upon an animated property make much more of an effort to retain original designs and exaggerated aesthetics, even if they don't look "real". Witness the "Scooby Doo" movies, or "George of the Jungle". "Tetsujin-28" clearly falls into the second category, even if its original source material is print rather than animation.

Made to celebrate (roughly) the fiftieth anniversary of the original manga, Tetsujin features Shosuke Ikematsu as Shotaro Kaneda, a twelve-year-old new kid in town who is as surprised as anyone when pieces of a giant robot erupt from the ground and fly off into the distance, causing immense property damage. The worst is yet to come, though - the pieces return assembled, as the fearsome Black Ox. Luckily, the forces of good have their own giant robot, Tetsujin-28, which Shotaro learns was built by his own father - and which was designed for him to control! Unluckily, Shotaro is something of a scaredy-cat, and in their first encounter, Black Ox beats Tetsujin like a drum.

Though based upon a manga, Tetsujin is best known from a 1963 animated television series that ran in English-speaking countries as "Gigantor". Even though I've never seen an episode of Gigantor, I feel confident that Tetsujin has hewn fairly close to that source material just by looking at it. The robots have bold, relatively simple color schemes and designs (Tetsujin is purple with red trim and a pointy nose, Ox black with bright yellow eyes), and many of the supporting characters are whimsically designed: Yu Aoi's girl scientist dresses somewhere between mod and tomboy, and as the grandfather, Katsuo Nakamura has been cast, made-up and costumed to call to mind the elder mentor who pops up in any number of manga and animes, even down to his short stature. The villain's ash-white hair matches his attire. The remote control Shotaro uses to control Tetsujin is much larger than one would expect for a story that apparently takes place in the present day.

As enjoyable as the visual presentation is, there's something missing. Black Ox and Tetsujin are lovely CGI models to look at, and when the characters are working on the disassembled Tetsujin, the match between the CGI and model elements are pretty close to flawless. Their confrontations are somewhat lifeless, though. They're big, lumbering robots, and their fights are less donnybrooks than shoving matches. Shoving matches in slow motion. There's very little energy to it, and even as they fall through Tokyo buildings, little feeling of danger.

Perhaps that's intentional. This is a children's movie, though not having been exposed to the advertising, reviews, content ratings, and the like, I didn't know that going in. Part of the fun of a festival like Fantasia is seeing mainstream sorts of movies without having had months or years of pre-release hype with which to pigeonhole them. Still, even for a kids' film, this seems rather muted. Literally, in fact; many of the action scenes have no incidental music, increasing the leaden atmosphere. Director Shin Togashi has made a movie to which you can take a six year old without fear of him being traumatized, but there's a very real chance he won't be excited, either.

Which is a shame. Making an adventure movie that even young children can enjoy is a worthy goal, and the filmmakers are mostly on the right track. The cast is likable, and the kids is easy to relate to. There's a good kid/deceased father vibe, a cute scene where the elementary school kid gets tongue-tied around Yu Aoi's character as if the boy-girl thing is a factor. The robots are impressive without really being scary. It's pretty and filled with bright colors without quite seeming a live-action cartoon.

But even little kids like to hold their breath during a movie, and this one plays it all too safe.

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