March 18, 2010

Astro Boy

Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): **

The new CG-animated feature film Astro Boy begins with a young boy dying in a blast right in front of his helpless father's eyes. The father (voiced by Nicolas Cage) feverishly rebuilds him as a robot, but then rejects him and banishes him. From there, the boy is viciously attacked by giant spaceships and robots, smacked through the air, and pummeled against buildings amidst a spray of bullets across the skyline (including -- no kidding -- a butt gun). It's all presented with a lack of real emotion and in a hail of noise and explosions, begging the question, who is this movie for?

"Astro Boy" first came into being as a Japanese manga in 1952 and then as a cartoon series in 1963. Two more cartoon series followed in 1980 and 2003, and many American kids grew up on the cheap looking, but thrilling animation about a superheroic kid. There are likely many adults who today look back with warm nostalgia on these shows and comics, but without any illusions about their quality. The new American movie makes the mistake of ignoring the nostalgia and/or geek factor of the franchise and instead becomes a slick, state-of-the-art product devoid of charm. Yet it's also too violent and too crushingly obvious for kids. (Theatrically, it earned less than $20 million back on its $65 million budget.)

Moreover, the film comes with a clumsy political allegory, in which the wealthiest and most elite of the human population lives in an opulent floating city called Metro City. Robots perform all of the menial tasks, and when they wear out, they're simply dumped to the surface, which -- as better demonstrated in WALL-E -- is covered in trash. President Stone (voice of Donald Sutherland) is an evil warmonger who is up for re-election and whose ratings are tumbling. He decides to arm a major new weapon and declare war on the surface to boost his approval. (It worked for two generations of Bushes.) Of course, there are all kinds of outcasts living on the surface and trying to scrape by, and that's where Astro Boy ends up.

He makes some new friends, including the big-eyed, dye-hair, cutie-pie Cora (voiced by Kristen Bell), and the goofy robot builder Hamegg (voiced by Nathan Lane). Astro can't tell them he's a robot, and when they find out, he's forced to fight in a brutal robot deathmatch. Then we get the usual stuff in which his "betrayed" friends learn to trust him again and a happy "be yourself" conclusion. The film totally fails to realize the much darker, underlying material having to do with the fear of becoming separated from one's parents (or creators), brilliantly covered in much better films like A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Coraline (2009).

The only saving grace -- aside from the great-looking, professional animation -- is the talented voice of Freddie Highmore (The Spiderwick Chronicles) as Astro Boy. He takes this ridiculous character and gives him, for fleeting moments, something resembling a soul.

The new DVD from Summit comes with several featurettes about adapting Astro Boy, recording the voices and designing the look of the film. There are also two new short animated sequences.

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Posted by cphillips at March 18, 2010 3:16 PM

My friends and I saw Astro Boy and absolutely loved it. It was emotional, funny, and really made you care about Astro and his friends. I'd give the movie an A+, and I liked it a HECK of a lot more than that gloomy Coraline. What a bore!

Posted by: Shelley at March 20, 2010 8:29 PM
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