Dir: David Bowers. US. 2009. 93 mins.
Almost 60 years after his comic-book inception, the iconic Japanese robot Astro Boy finally makes his cinematic debut in a feature that, unfortunately, feels as if it has been assembled from spare parts. Despite some occasionally stunning CG animation, Astro Boy underwhelms with an origin story that references other contemporary cartoon films as well as sources as diverse as Pinocchio and the science-fiction novels of Isaac Asimov.
Astro Boy is most confident when it avoids human emotions
Despite some high-profile voice talent such as Nicolas Cage, Astro Boy will battle a lack of familiarity with the character in the US alongside stiff competition from Where The Wild Things Are and the re-release of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas when it opens domestically on October 23.
Internationally, Astro Boy has been sold by Summit outside Imagi Studios’ key territories of Japan (where it took $328,000 from 206 on its opening weekend), Hong Kong and China, where it goes out day and date with the US. Because of a higher awareness of the character, particularly in Japan, Asian markets should embrace this adaptation more warmly, aided by the fact that Astro Boy’s Asian features remain much the same as originally drawn.
In the futuristic Astro Boy, most of humanity lives in Metro City, a community which hovers high above the Earth’s surface and is littered with discarded robots. One of Metro City’s citizens, Dr. Tenma (Cage), is devastated by the death of his son Toby (Freddie Highmore) and creates a robot duplicate implanted with the boy’s memories. But once Toby realises that he is a machine and that his father doesn’t want him, he makes his way to Earth, where he renames himself Astro and finds refuge with some orphaned children.
Japanese artist Osamu Tezuka created Astro Boy in 1951, and he has been the subject of two successful TV series since then – in 1963 and 2003 – but no full-length adaptation.
The resulting film hints at some intriguing emotional undercurrents, but director and co-writer David Bowers (Flushed Away) shows little interest in exploiting these possibilities. Astro Boy’s early stretches pay lip service to the poignancy of Tenma’s obsession with “saving” his dead son, but soon these concerns are junked to focus on an inelegant plot concerning Metro City’s warmongering president (Donald Sutherland), who wants to steal Astro’s powerful energy source.
Once Tenma rejects his robot son, Astro Boy shifts into an awkward merger of strained pathos, hit-and-miss humour and pumped-up action. Astro’s mildly amusing interactions with a group of outcast robots on the planet’s surface recall similar zany side characters in Pixar and Dreamworks movies, while the film’s commentary on robots as second-class citizens has parallels to Wall-E and acclaimed author Isaac Asimov’s books such as I, Robot.
For a film that is meant to introduce Astro’s back-story and set the stage for sequels, this boy robot hasn’t been programmed with much of a personality, something which isn’t helped by Highmore’s mediocre voice performance. But no one around Astro leaves much of an impression, either. Cage’s Tenma leaves the story soon after he creates Astro, and Sutherland’s nefarious president is a rather tame villain, especially considering that his quest for re-election feels esoteric for a film aimed at young audiences.
But what it lacks in story, Astro Boy compensates with its CG animation, which creates an exciting, high-tech environment for the film’s flashy robot battles. The filmmakers wanted to make us sympathise with Astro’s predicament of being both man and machine, but Astro Boy is most confident when it avoids human emotions and concentrates on the technical aspects of cool explosions and imaginative future worlds.
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Imagi Studios (Hong Kong/China/Japan)
Timothy Hyde Harris and David Bowers, from a story by Bowers
(Astro Boy manga created by Osamu Tezuka)
Main voice cast: