Astro Boy, the latest entry from Imagi Animation Studios and based upon a Japanese television show, is sleek and handsome effort, but one that suffers from an idiotic premise that no doubt took under two seconds to hatch ("Robot boy battles giant robots"). The look harkens back to the glory days of Saturday morning cartoons but is advanced enough to be a shade more interesting. It is also, to its credit, comfortable in presenting its viewer with grown up complexities and moral dilemmas that seem to echo Steven Spielberg’s early decade masterpiece A.I.
Of course, they would never advertise the movie that way, so instead they had to mislead everyone into thinking that they were going to see a movie about a boy who has machine guns that come out of his butt cheeks. The machine guns are there, sure enough, but they play such a small role that anybody who goes to see the movie just for that will definitely leave the theatre with a scowl. Astro Boy digs deep, though not deep enough, into heavy topics such as loss, abandonment, class warfare and resurrection. It would sit very comfortably as the thinking man’s anime movie, if it weren’t so preoccupied trying to be the everyman’s anime movie instead.
Toby, the soon to be Astro Boy, lives in the futuristic city of Metro City, which (keep up now) is a large chunk of Earth that has broken off and now floats miles above the planet, serving as an oasis for rich people trying to avoid the poor, unfortunate souls living in squalor on the Earth below which now serves as a giant trash heap. Robots, you see, play a huge role in the lives of the citizens of Metro City, being used for every chore no matter how simple or meaningless.
Toby’s dad, Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage), is a top ranking government official and in charge of developing new weapons for President Stone (Donald Sutherland), who we know to be conservative because he views starting a war as a savvy campaign tactic. An overly ambitious Toby wanders a little too close to the action and is blown to bits leaving only his red baseball cap behind. His dad, being a man of the times, simply recreates his boy out of spare robot parts and downloads his memory into the machine. Everything is hunky dory for a good ten minutes of film time until Toby realizes he can fly. Upon telling his dad about his exciting new discovery his dad coldly drops the truth on him and concludes with "I. . .don’t want you anymore."
From there the action moves back down to Earth where Toby has been driven into exile. After a quick run in with Russian inspired revolutionary robots (they call each other comrade, have posters of Lenin, and “fight the power.”) the newly anointed Astro falls in with a group of poor kids. We know they are poor because, well, they eat bug-infested pizza out of the trash. The leader of the pack is Cora (Kristen Bell), a character billed as punk rock, which in reality means that director David Bowers just gave her a streak of pink hair and hoped that it would overshadow the rest of her WASPyness.
The movie runs a well-padded 94 minutes and the entire segment on Earth feels extraneous. All signs point towards a climatic showdown with the evil President Stone, so why are we farting around down here? Every new character that saunters on screen is decidedly more boring than the last, which is rather unfortunate because writer Timothy Harris has come up with a tight, shifty script that will keep even the smartest viewer off balance. One thing leads to another and soon Astro is being returned home via military escort. They want to extract the energy source from him, which sets up his epic battle with President Stone.
The ending is exactly as corny as you are imagining it to be, and it is just enough to sink the entire show. On paper a slightly more dystopian version of 2005’s Robots with an original look and brain cells to spare should have worked beautifully. It does not. Suffocated by the one-size fits all mentality of a story petrified of possibly offending (even a little) one parent or one child, Astro Boy turns into a poster child for missed opportunity. The film poses some seriously deep questions, but then runs screaming from them in the opposite direction as fast as possible, towards the warm embrace of a safe, boring happy ending.
Starring: Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell, Donald Sutherland
Director: David Bowers
Distributor: Summit Entertainment
Runtime: 94 minutes
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