– Summary –
Director : David Bowers
Year Of Release : 2009
Principal Cast : Voices of Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell, Bill Nighy, Donald Sutherland, Nathan Lane, Eugene Levy, Charlize Theron, Samuel L Jackson, Alan Tudyk,
Approx Running Time : 94 Minutes
Synopsis: When a scientists son is killed in an accident, he creates a robotic version to replace the lost boy. But the President of Atomic City doesn’t want Astro left alive.
What we think : Flat, awkwardly uninvolving animated fare is too dark for younger kiddies, and too simplistic for the older ones, leaving it floundering somewhere in the middle. Barely-okay scripting and a emotionally convoluted central premise are almost – almost, mind you – overcome by some truly stunning animation, but the end result is a lot less than the sum of its parts.
I have this vague recollection of watching a weird cartoon in my younger days, about a robot boy who has super powers and saves the day a lot. Unfortunately, perhaps due mainly to the fact I lived in rural Australia where current events happened six months later, the 80’s weren’t exactly the most memorable of cinema or television viscera. My snowy, perhaps rose-coloured tint of a memory about watching Astro Boy as a kid, through the halcyon days of my parents 30cm black and white TV, followed by a Sanyo 40-something cm TV, relies more on the perception of watching it than the actuality of it. I know I watched Astro Boy, it’s just that I can’t remember much about it. Thank goodness for YouTube and the internet, right? So along comes the modern, slick savvy remodeling of every thirty/forty-something’s childhood, and as with most things Hollywood tried to “update” for better or worse, you can often hear the collective groan of disappointment ring out across the land when the promise of a return to your boyhood fantasy of flying with rocket feet through the sky comes hurtling down to earth with the cosmic thud of unbearable, crushing nihilism. Nah, I didn’t like this much.
Astro Boy’s backstory is pretty damn sad. Doctor Tenma (Nicolas Cage), whose son Toby (Freddie Highmore) has just been killed in a science experiment gone wrong, is beset with grief. He sets about creating a robotic version of Toby as a replacement, powered by a mysterious space substance known as Blue Core, the energy of which is quite substantial. There also happens to be a Red Core, the direct opposite of the Blue Core, and both work in opposition to each other. The President of Atomic City, a city floating above the now-ravaged Earth, named Stone (Donald Sutherland), wants the Cores for himself, and thus tries to capture and destroy the newly minted robotic lad. Toby’s clone eventually winds up on the surface of Earth, where he meets a group of kids under the care of one Hamegg, who rebuilds robots to set them into battle in the robotic equivalent of Gladiator. Toby-robot, renamed Astro by his new kid friends, meets Cora, a young girl also from Metro City.
The thing about Astro Boy is that he’s a character borne of a fairly dark emotional place – the kind of scenario similarly shown in Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence: a young robotic boy is alienated after “replacing” a child essentially lost to a grieving parent, only to have said parent want nothing to do with him. This kind of adult-themed storyline could be handled fairly delicately in an animated kids film, perhaps more appropriately in flashback or some other montage brushing over the more gory bits of the narrative, but this film presents them in all their glory. Tenma is shown refusing to have anything to do with the robotic replacement for his dead son, and I tend to think this may be a little hard for younger tots to understand: so I say this to any parent reading this review – you should watch this film first before deciding if your kids are able to understand the themes in this film.
All that aside, Astro Boy as a film doesn’t exactly lend itself to Pixar/DreamWorks quality storytelling. Characters are written with some truly atrocious dialogue, especially poor Bill Nighy as Astor’s big-nosed scientist friend Elfun, who seems more content spouting Hallmark card sentimentality than being a fully developed character. Stone, the chief villain in the piece, is a disaster of a character, with Donald Sutherland reduced to teeth-grinding “get him!” material that does nothing to develop the narrative beyond provoking yet another chase/battle sequence. Nic Cage fares even worse as Astro’s “father”, Tenma, who has the personality of a lump of coal. He’s stone cold dead as a character, and Cage can’t even induce even the most subtle or miniscule care-factor from the audience with his deadpan delivery. Freddie Highmore brings a real sense of innocence lost to the central character of Astro, but even he can’t elevate the pre-school dialogue beyond simplistic. The writers, Timothy Harris and director Bowers, have tried to bring the sense of discovery and wonder to the story, but the mix with the emotional arc they give Astro as he tries to fit into a family that no longer wants him, doesn’t jibe. There’s moments, for sure, but the overarching feel of the film is a bit ho-hum.
While things bubble along with a story trying to cram too much emotional weight into its short running time, the animation on Astro Boy is nothing short of spectacular. This is true CGI eye-candy, which will probably keep the kiddies glued to the screen even after the hundredth viewing – it’s just so disappointing that the story isn’t up to par with the geekput. From Astro’s rocket feet, to the final mega-robot Godzilla-inspired uber-battle, this film simply dazzles with the visuals. The amazing detail even extends to the life the characters have in their eyes, and you truly believe these digital creations might actually exist somewhere. But they don’t.
Ahh, what could have been. As it stands, Astro Boy’s death-dealing opening half hour pretty much kills any semblance of life or energy this film might have had. The film tries, it really does, and I can understand where David Bowers was trying to go with the emotional wrench Astro’s “father” dumping him would imply, but it’s just too dark for kiddies, and too underdeveloped for adults to give a crap. The relationship between Astro and Cora is about the only saving grace the film has, and that is too little, too late, by the time things start to kick into gear. Those of you with fond memories of Astro Boy in its animated form will probably be best to avoid watching this lest you befoul such a sacred thing. Those of you with kids who have no taste in quality entertainment will be happy to note this will satisfy only the most tasteless individual and keep them “entertained” for at least ten minutes or so.