Astro Boy


Astro Boy

Love the hair, Toby!

(2009) Animated Science Fiction (Summit) Starring the voices of Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell, Nathan Lane, Bill Nighy, Donald Sutherland, Charlize Theron, Eugene Levy, Matt Lucas. Directed by David Bowers

In the soul of a machine there beats the heart of a young boy. Where does the machine end and the human being begin?

The year is 3000 and the world is terribly polluted. The citizens of Metro City have created for themselves something of a utopia by floating their city high in the atmosphere and creating an army of robots to wait on the citizenry hand and foot…or cog and wheel, as it were. Those who disagree with the policies of the repressive government headed by President Stone (Sutherland), a megalomaniacal tyrant, are sent to the surface to live amongst the garbage.

Dr. Tenma (Cage) is a brilliant robotics specialist and as it turns out, Minister of Science for the current regime. The President wants Tenma to create the ultimate war machine so he can wage war on the surface dwellers; not so much because they’re a threat but so that he can regain a higher approval rating and win the upcoming elections. The Peacekeeper is Dr. Tenma’s solution; what it needs, however, is a power source that won’t konk out on it mid-Peace.

That solution comes courtesy of Dr. Elefun (Nighy) who has extracted the core of a comet and discovered two opposing energy sources; the stable and pure Blue Energy and the unstable and unpredictable Red Energy, which predictably is much more powerful than the Blue Energy. Just as predictably, the President wants to use the Red Energy as the Peacekeeper’s power source despite the objections of his scientific staff. The result is a catastrophe; the Peacekeeper goes out-of-control ballistic and is only just barely restrained. There is a casualty however; Dr. Tenma’s young son Toby (Highmore)  is caught in the crossfire and is vaporized in front of his very eyes.

Understandably, Dr. Tenma is grief-stricken and withdraws from his position. Half-mad and wracked by guilt, he determines to replace his son with a robot, one that will pass for him physically and is cloned from the DNA of a single strand of Toby’s hair, which remains on his ballcap. Dr. Tenma also adds some enhancements for robo-Toby (Highmore) to adequately defend himself, knowing that once word of the advanced robot reaches the President he’ll want it for himself.

However, something odd happens. At first, the new robot is the perfect copy of his son, complete with all his memories and personality quirks, but he isn’t quite the same. For one thing, he very quickly becomes aware that he isn’t human – perhaps it’s the jet pack built into his feet, or the machine gun that comes out of his tush. Yes, that’s what I said.

In any case, Dr. Tenma rejects his artificial son and the robot winds up falling to Earth following an encounter with the military. There he is befriended by a group of scavengers reporting to Hamegg (Lane) who runs a battle arena where robots battle one another, most of them built from scraps and spare parts his scavengers pick up for him. The robot is christened Astro Boy and eventually is befriended by Cora (Bell), one of the scavengers but the military eventually comes looking for him and you and I and everyone in Japan knows that eventually Astro will be going robot a robot with the Peacekeeper.

Astro Boy originally appeared as first a manga and then a black and white anime in Japan back in 1951, showing up in the United States in the 60s as a color series. It has appeared occasionally in one form or another on these shores on television since. The creator of Astro Boy, Osamu Tezuka, is considered the father of modern anime and is credited with the distinctive large-eyed look of the genere.

Fans of the original manga and anime series will not be pleased at some of the subtle differences that have been wrought by Bowers who was co-director of Flushed Away for Aardman. For example, Dr. Elefun who in the series adopted Astro Boy is relegated to little more than a cameo here. In some ways, the rejection of Astro by his dear old dad is much crueler here than it was in the series as well, which may upset some young boys who might be feeling much the same as the robot.

Still, fans and non-fans alike will thrill to the visuals of this movie. Imagi Animation Studios, a Hong Kong-based studio, were responsible for those and they show themselves to be nearly the equal of Pixar in that regard. Both the utopian Metro City and the dystopian surface are wondrous to look at. Even Astro himself is a joy to behold.

What is not so much a joy is a good deal of the voice acting. Granted, the script is not super well-written but it felt like many of the actors phoned in their performances. Cage, who can be very emotional when he wants to be, is curiously flat here as the grieving father. The movie needed raw emotion to draw its audience into the story but that is never provided; consequently, the audience feels disconnected from the movie and that makes it really hard to love it.

There are some good elements here and certainly it is an attractive movie to look at, but like a vacuous blonde, once you get past the good looks you realize there is nothing of substance here. While I look forward to Imagi’s future endeavors, they have yet to learn the simple secret of Pixar’s success – that no animated movie, no matter how beautifully drawn it is, can survive a poor story but a movie with a great story that is beautifully drawn will be a classic that will last for years to come.

WHY RENT THIS: Exquisitely drawn visuals and a chance to re-visit an anime icon.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Wooden voice acting in many instances and a plot that could have used some shoring up.

FAMILY VALUES: This is action a-plenty, and scenes of a young boy placed in mortal peril. There are also a few mildly bad words which are probably nothing your average 8-year-old hasn’t already heard and most likely coming out of your mouth.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Japanese version of the movie uses Astro Boy’s original bodyform, facial characteristics and hairstyle, while the U.S. version is updated on all three counts.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of short films utilizing characters from the movie, but for my money the most interesting extra feature is a featurette showing the evolution of Astro Boy from Tezuka’s original drawings until now.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39.9M on a $65M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

TOMORROW: Gulliver’s Travels (2010)

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New Releases for the Week of October 23, 2009


Sadly, despite all the hoopla the Airstream with wings never really took off.

Sadly, despite all the hoopla the Airstream with wings never really took off.

AMELIA

(Fox Searchlight) Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, Mia Wasikowska, Joe Anderson. Directed by Mira Nair

One of the most iconic figures of the 20th century was aviatrix Amelia Earhart. She blazed a trail for women back in the Depression for women to follow; she was fearless, confident and just as competent as any man in her chosen field. Sadly, that’s not what she is mostly remembered for today – not how she lived but rather, the mystery around how she (presumably) died. Acclaimed director Mira Nair intends to change that. While there have been biographical films about Earhart in the past, Nair seems to be out to show the human side of the hero and present her many accomplishments, many of which have been overshadowed by her mysterious disappearance during an attempted flight around the globe in 1937. This may very well be the first major entry in the Oscar sweepstakes for 2009.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for some sexuality, language, thematic elements and smoking)

A Serious Man

(Focus) Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed, Richard Kind, Adam Arkin. This is the latest from the Coen Brothers; that should be all you need to know to want to go see it right away. However, if you need a little more to get you into the theater, this is about a very neurotic Jewish professor at a small university in Minnesota during the 1960s who finds his life falling apart. His wife wants to leave him for an overbearing colleague; his feckless brother seems destined to spend the rest of his life on the couch in his living room, his children seem to be deliberately going out of their way to make him miserable and a mysterious letter-writer is trying to undermine his quest for tenure. He has come to realize he is a nebbish and needs advice on how to be a mensch – a serious man. However, the rabbis he consult cloud up the issue even further.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence)

Astro Boy

(Summit) Starring the voices of Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell, Charlize Theron. Based on one of the very first Japanese animes, this sci-fi animated feature is about a young robot with amazing powers that has been given a more or less human face and form. However, the boy robot is isolated because he is different. He goes on a journey to find acceptance, battling killer robots and aliens on the way.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for some action and peril, and brief mild language)

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant

(Universal) John C. Reilly, Ken Watanabe, Chris Massoglia, Salma Hayek. Based on a popular series of young adult fantasy novels, Universal is hoping this will kick off a new franchise for them. A bored young teen, feeling his wife is being mapped out and ultimately wasted in his dreary suburban existence, is drawn to a strange sideshow full of creatures as misunderstood as he feels himself to be. In a moment of clarity, he realizes he belongs with the Cirque and becomes one of the undead. However, his inexperience at being a vampire inadvertently breaks a 200-year-old truce between warring factions and threatens his new found home. Perhaps he should have read the Twilight series first.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense supernatural violence and action, disturbing images, thematic elements and some language)

Good Hair

(Roadside Attractions) Chris Rock, Maya Angelou, Nia Long, Kerry Washington. Hair is not merely what covers our head; it is our own personal signature. In the African-American community, hair can go even further, as a symbol of individual identity and often a tribute to African heritage. Comedian Chris Rock take an occasionally poignant and often hilarious look at the role of hair in African-American culture and tries to determine, once and for all, just what determines how hair can be “good.”

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for some language including sex and drug references, and brief partial nudity)

Saw VI

(Lionsgate) Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Betsy Russell, Shawnee Smith. The most successful horror franchise of the 21st century returns with more diabolical traps, more gruesome murders, more elaborate games and, well, just more.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture, and language)