Seldom do I find myself enjoying a movie but, at the same time, hesitating to fully recommend it, which is the unfortunate case here. Astro Boy is based upon Tezuka Osamu’s 1952 Japanese classic manga that’s already been adapted into a few television shows and carries a fair amount of nostalgia. Director David Bowers (Flushed Away) has forged a largely a faithful adaptation and, with the help of co-screenwriter Timothy Hyde Harris, has added a hefty dose of Pinocchio as well as sprinklings of Frankenstein, Iron Giant, Wall-E, Freaks, and Oliver Twist. Wisely, these allusions are not pop-culture oriented but merely used for their social humor in a serviceable script. On the visual side, the movie’s CG animation comes from Imagi Studios (Hong Kong), which gives spectacular and far more colorfully appealing results than the toned-down hues of the now-popular 3D format. Overall, Astro Boy is a treasure of a film, but some of its thematic considerations give me pause. Children’s movies should never specifically target a political office holder of any persuasion, but Astro Boy not only does that but also further offends with the opposing notions of Blue Energy (good) and Red Energy (evil) to fuel the movie’s action. Once again, Hollywood has taken it upon themselves to enlighten the audience with their allegedly superior views. Not only is this a major turnoff, but political parodies and satires tend to really date a movie (especially kids’ titles that tend to do heavy rotation in the DVD player). Perhaps, one day, filmmakers will decide to drop the lectures and just fucking entertain their audiences.
Astro Boy begins in a post-apocalyptic Metro City, which floats between Earth’s clouds and The Surface. The narrator (Charlize Theron) tells us how humans use sentient robots for nearly every unpleasant task—from cleaning the house to raising one’s own children—and when these bots get old and rusty, they become part of the garbage pile that’s tossed over the side of the city onto the The Surface below. Immediately after this short speech, a young genius named Toby Tenma (Freddie Highmore) aces a quiz at school and drops in to visit his father’s workplace at the Ministry of Science. Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage) is a prominent scientist regarded as the “father of robotics,” and is giving a presentation for his newly-developed Blue Energy. Also present is Metro City’s war-mongering President Stone (Donald Sutherland), who thinks that this Blue Energy (along with a catchy “It’s Not Time For Change” slogan) can help him win reelection.
This political crap is rather distracting, isn’t it? Not to mention Cage’s lethargic mess of a voice. Let’s try to ignore it and continue.
Now, although Toby is a bright child, his curiosity still gets him into trouble at times, and the pre-pubescent prodigy becomes trapped in a sealed laboratory with an evil-robot-gone-wild. In an instant, tragedy strikes as Toby is disintegrated. Of course, this is a PG-rated film, so we don’t actually see anything happen, but we clearly get the message when Dr. Tenma enters the lab and only finds Toby’s baseball cap. Almost immediately, the guilt-stricken and grieving Tenma goes a little crazy and stays awake for days while constructing a virtually indestructable robot version of his dead son. Tenma’s plan, fueled by a desire of never losing his son again, is to arm the bot with a buttload (quite literally) of internal weaponry, superstrength, and the ability to fly. As finishing touches, all of Toby’s memories and consciousness are implanted into the robot before the Blue Energy core activates the Replacement Toby. Since robots are inferior to humans, Tenma decides against informing his new creation of his robot status, so, initially, the robot actually thinks that he is Toby. All goes well at first, but Tenma begins to notice small discrepancies and, at about the same time that Replacement Toby discovers his ability to fly, Tenma realizes that this robot son may be a nearly perfect match but will always be a cruel and mocking reminder of the dead Toby. This disillusionment leads Tenma to cast Replacement Toby out on his own. President Stone (Donald Sutherland) sends his troops to capture the robot’s Blue Energy core, and, after a scuffle, the small robot falls from Metro City to the Earth’s surface.
On the surface, the poor robot hilariously encounters a group of “zombie robots” that prepare to cannibalize him for his batteries. Fortunately, he’s rescued by a trio of Aussie-accented, liberation-seeking robots (with a mysterious Tarantino-esque briefcase) who rename him as “Astro.” With his new identity, Astro pretends to be a human boy and falls in with a group of orphaned children led by Cora (Kristen Bell in yet another thankless role), who live with a surrogate father of sorts called Hamegg (Nathan Lane). One would think that these ground dwellers on The Surface, who do not enslave robots, would be somehow less corrupt than the citizens of Metro City, but, as Astro quickly discovers, that’s not the case. Fortunately, The Surface also contains a cast highlight in Samuel L. Jackson (who judiciously omits his trademarked “motherfucker”) as Zog, a giant, archaic robot that becomes instrumental in the somewhat chaotic finale.
Certainly, some heavy issues are on display in Astro Boy, but the filmmakers keep the pace lively and action-packed, so as to brush away any audience trepidation. Unlike Spike Jonze’s recent picture, you won’t find any wailing children here, for the exhilaration of Toby/Astro’s first flight is impossible to resist. As Astro finds his place in the world and his greater destiny, the movie reaps some great rewards. Then again, a post-screening discussion (Is Replacement Toby is the “real” Toby? Why or why not?) with the kiddies isn’t a bad idea. Certainly, when a small robot voraciously reads a stack of books, which includes seminal works by Descartes and Kant, that may just tell us something.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.