Astro Boy is one of Japan’s most famous exports to the world. The story of a little robot boy began life in 1952, written by the father of modern manga, Osamu Tezuka. It became a television series first in 1963, and has been in development in Hollywood since 1999. Jim Henson Productions and Sony had a shot at it. Genndy Tartakovsky has been attached to it, as have several other prominent animators. Ten years later, here it is. One of the most famous manga in history has its big screen rebirth.
Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage) is the head of the Ministry of Science. One day, while demonstrating a new weapon, there is a horrible accident and his son Toby (Freddie Highmore) gets vaporized. Overcome with grief, Tenma and his colleague/conscience Dr. Elefun (Bill Nighy) construct a perfect robotic recreation of Toby, complete with Toby’s memories and appearance. Of course, Tenma doesn’t tell his son-bot that he’s got super robot powers, so imagine Toby’s surprise when he discovers he can fly.
Things only get worse when Tenma, still grieving over the death of his flesh son, casts his robot out into the cruel world. Never mind the fact that General Stone (Donald Sutherland) wants to turn the power source of Tenma’s creation into a weapon.
The plot is your standard superhero origin story. Astro Boy discovers he’s Astro Boy, flies around getting used to his rocket boots and machine-gun butt, General Stone and the military wants to make his power source into a weapon, and that sort of thing. This isn’t really a plot movie; this is an action movie for kids.
The movie’s world-building and impressively full street scenes speak to director David Bowers’ background in animation. Astro Boy is a whirl of fists and motion when he fights, especially in the last battle with the Peacekeeper. He darts and dives through a gorgeous 2-D world when he flies, and he flies often during several good chase scenes. There’s a lot of movement, and, most of the time, a lot of energy. Even when there’s nothing going on plot-wise, there’s something going on visually to keep the eyes busy.
The script, by Bowers and Timothy Harris, is nothing remarkable, even at its best moments, but I did like its winks to other animated robot films, like Wall-E and Robots, as well as the nods to the Osamu Tezuka-inspired A.I. There are also some pretty funny scenes with various robots, like Sparx (Matt Lucas) and his Communist Robot Revolutionary Front and Dr. Tenma’s robot servant Orrin (Eugene Levy, at his most neurotic). Other moments, particularly involving General Stone, are meant to be funny but land with a serious thud. General Stone himself is kind of a thud, in fact.
I hate it when a movie has one element that just completely ruins what might have been an otherwise fun experience. For Astro Boy, that element is the completely over-the-top George W. Bush parody character of General Stone. Seriously, every time Stone shows up, it’s to deliver some groaningly bad line about how he’s running for reelection and the best way to get the people to vote for an unpopular candidate is to start some sort of pointless war.
I get it, you don’t like him. There’s absolutely no need to beat the parents in the audience over the head with your shillelagh of anti-Dubya propaganda. It’s funny the first time, but it’s incredibly annoying every other time and a waste of one of the better voice actors in the film in the person of Donald Sutherland. It’s a one-note joke that the movie keeps trying to wring more screen time out of, and it never quite works.
If you’re going to have this kind of character, and run him into the ground with stupid comments and smarminess, why didn’t you just make Nicolas Cage the voice? I mean, if anyone can deliver ham-fisted dialog in a smarmy way, it’s the worst voice actor in the movie. You can keep Donald Sutherland and make him Dr. Elefun, and then give Dr. Tenma to Bill Nighy. There, just by shuffling around your existing cast, I’ve made the movie substantially better.
Freddie Highmore’s take on Astro Boy isn’t bad, and Kristen Bell is another one of the movie’s high points in the character of Cora. Even Nathan Lane’s Ham Egg isn’t quite as obvious and forced a villain, and he operates the future version of Battlebots!
If not for those issues, Astro Boy would be just a fun romp for the kids. If you could cut way back on General Stone’s Bushiness and maybe work a little harder to hide your weaker voice actors, you’ve got a pretty entertaining movie on your hands. But you watch the movie they make, not the movie you want them to make.
After the oppressive sadness of Where The Wild Things Are, it’s nice to have a legitimately energetic kids movie again.