VOICES OF: Nicolas Cage, Charlize Theron,
Donald Sutherland, Bill Nighy, Nathan Lane, Eugene Levy, Freddie Highmore,
Kristen Bell, Matt Lucas
2009, 94 Minutes, Directed by:
from the celebrated, long-standing manga series, Astro Boy aims to make a
big dent on the big screen with this CG-animated spectacular.
Boasting glossy visuals,
red-hot action, and a sparkling cast of voices, the film is ready to please, but
the end product is perhaps a step too bizarre and cartoony to leave a lasting,
awe-inspiring impression. It's a great character and an impetuous movie, but
with all the attention placed on keeping the animation energetic and the actors
satisfied, someone forgot to straighten out the erratic tone of the picture.
In Metro City, a metropolis
hovering high above a polluted Earth, Dr. Tenma (voiced by Nicolas Cage) is
preparing to experiment with a pure energy source intended to enhance the city's
overflowing robot population.
When wicked President Stone
(Donald Sutherland) assumes control of the energy, an accident occurs, killing
Tenma's son (Freddie Highmore). Racked with grief, Tenma decides to use the
special power to fuel a robot replica of his beloved child, but the boy's
artificiality only deepens the doctor's depression. Cast down to Earth, the boy,
rechristened Astro by a gang of pre-teen salvagers and their makeshift guardian,
Hamegg (Nathan Lane), grows to love treatment as a human, but when Stone rises
up again to claim power, Astro must embrace his robotic roots to save humanity.
"The death of a child, mockery of illiteracy and Communist robots!"
Astro Boy comes from
Imagi Animation Studios, who last gave the world the wonderful
TMNT CG update. If there are any absolutes about this
film, it's the striking animation. Granted, Imagi doesn't have the budget or the
manpower to compete with Pixar and DreamWorks just yet, but their minimal-coin
work on Astro Boy is nicely futuristic and clean, with expressive body
language and outstanding kinetic energy for the action sequences. The picture is
fun to watch, and director David Bowers (Flushed Away) builds a few
exhilarating sequences to show off the CG work, the highlights being the flying
excursions where our hero learns of his rocket-feet gifts.
While Bowers can assemble
superhero wonderment, managing the numerous moods of Astro Boy proves to
be an impossible task. Here's a film that opens with the death of a child, yet
insists it's this wide-eyed, banana-peel cartoon, ushering in a series of wacky
characters and slapstick to offset the potential emotional starkness of the
material. The additions are poorly selected, ranging from a group of communist
robots intent on leading a synthetic uprising to the squad of "surface" kids Astro befriends, who live in a semi-Dickensian wonderland under Hamegg, with one
of the group admitting illiteracy. Of course, in the grand tradition of good
taste, this leaves Bowers with no choice but to make fun of their inability to
Astro Boy settles into a
routine of the awesome and the awful quickly, though it's disappointing to see
the bad decisions win out in the end. The President Stone character is a prime
example of the lousy screenwriting. A Bush-era, war-crazy baddie who's on a
fear-mongering crusade to secure re-election, Bowers turns the menace away from
horror to comedy, trying to lighten up the picture by urging Sutherland to ham
it up (always a rotten idea), making obvious and spastic jokes when a nice
coating of subtlety might've brought the film interesting dimensions. By nudging
the picture into primary colors, Astro Boy loses a shot at an intriguing
personality. A little sustained darkness never hurt anyone.
A colorful voice cast
(including Bill Nighy, Charlize Theron, Kristen Bell, David Alan Grier, and
Eugene Levy) offers something to savor while the film struggles to find its
footing, but this update of a classic animated character lands with a thud. A
promise of a sequel at the end of the film (where our now shirtless boy-hero
tears off into the sky) remains an unlikely prospect, but if there must be
further Astro adventures, let's hope the filmmakers stick to heroic feats of
strength and aerial ballet over awful stabs at comedy.