I like animation in just about any form, whether it’s the stop motion brilliance of Coraline or the computer graphics gleam of Toy Story or Shrek. I’m not a huge fan of manga, however, Japanese comics,though I am a definite fan of graphic novels and probably buy a dozen or so every month (which my kids definitely appreciate). Astro Boy was a mixed bag, therefore, because it’s animated (good) but based on a very Japanese manga comic and story (not so good).
What I hadn’t realized until watching this animated feature was that the story of Astro Boy is really just a robotic retelling of the story of Jesus, with lots and lots of visual and story ideas inspired by pop culture, including Robocop, Toy Story, Frankenstein, I Robot, Minority Report, a definite inspiration from Wall-E, and Pinocchio, just to name a few.
The story is set in a mythic future where the inhabitants of Earth have created a floating city built around Mt. Fujiyama called Metro City. Robots are pervasive and exist as distinct second-class citizens, destroyed on a whim and discarded over the side of Metro City in massive junk piles on the surface. In an amusing introductory video narrated by Charlize Theron, we are shown how the broken robots are discarded with the elegy “may you rust in peace.”
Brilliant boy scientist Toby (Freddie Highmore) is the son of Dr. Tenma (Nicholas Cage), and there’s no mother in the story at all, not even a mention of a missing, departed or deceased parent. Dr. Tenma is perpetually too busy to pay attention to Toby, who is left instead to play with his robot pal Orrin (Eugene Levy). Orrin is one of the best characters in the film, actually, with an emotional range far beyond most every other character in Astro Boy.
Through an accident, Toby is killed but his father resurrects him by tapping into pure positive “blue core energy” in a scene clearly reminiscent of the classic Frankenstein film.
There’s a lot more that transpires in this exciting film, but ultimately it was so derivative that it left me flat, unengaged in Astro Boy or any of the other character in the story. It was also too loud and too scary for small children. The target audience is probably only tween boys or perhaps younger teenage boys, along with manga fanatics.
There are lots of amusing adult touches in Astro Boy that kept me entertained during its 94 minute run time, including a scene where Dr. Tenma reminds Toby (by that time resurrected as a robot with Toby’s memories and experiences) that when he was younger, Tenma would read ridiculously adult, intellectual books to him, including Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” and Descarte’s “Before the Horse.” (get it?)
As with many films of this nature, there are some scenes that stand out as interesting and visually delightful, while others fall flat. One of the best was when Astro Boy is given a book on the complete works of Leonardo daVinci and proceeds to turn the pages into daVinci-esque flying machines. It’s almost worth the cost of admission alone.
In a classic resurrection scene that’s appeared in dozens of films, Astro Boy finds out for himself the additional powers he has, including turbo jet boots and hands that can turn into weapons as needed. He barrels through Mt. Fuji then soars high into the air, above the clouds, reveling in his powers.
After Metro City president Stone (Donald Sutherland) learns about the blue core energy and its negative, evil twin red core energy, he tries to create a robot with the red core energy as its primary power source. You can predict it goes awry and fights Astro boy, who ends up tossed off Metro City, landing in a junk pile on the planet’s surface.
He meets one of the most amusing groups of the film, the klutzy Robot Liberation Front. These three goofs are quite hilarious, and keep an eye out for the poster “We Robots Are Revolting!”. I want one of those!
Astro Boy also meets a group of Earth children, notably including female lead (though never his love interest) Cora (Kristen Bell). They bring him to meet robot tinkerer and Fagin-esque character Ham Egg (Nathan Lane). At first, Ham Egg seems like the attentive father Astro Boy has never had, but then it’s revealed that Ham Egg’s interest in robots is because he puts them in a gladiatorial ring to fight to the death.
In another scene with overt religious overtones, Astro resurrects ZOG, the giant construction robot show in the screen shot, above, by opening up his chest and then directing the pure blue core energy: the blue light flows into ZOG and wakes him up after a century of inactivity.
The film ends as you would expect for a children’s movie, including a rather dull reconciliation between Astro Boy/Toby and his father Dr. Tenma, who explains that “fitting in can be more complicated than it seems”, to which Astro Boy says “this must be my destiny.”
If you’re a manga fan or just love animation in any form, I’d definitely say Astro Boy is worth checking out. But don’t take your younger children. The volume, the imagery and the action and fighting scenes are just a bit too intense for their age group.