(2009) dir. David Bowers
viewed: 11/07/09 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA
Several years ago, I bought a DVD set of the 1980’s Astroboy series, ostensibly for the kids, and while it was a tad violent and serious for them when they were little, they came to really like Astroboy, particularly Clara. So, when I saw that a new version of Astro was to hit the cinemas, I figured that we’d most likely be going and also that it would most likely be awful. And the trailers weren’t necessarily arguing otherwise.
But we did see it and we all enjoyed it. Clara perhaps most of all.
Voiced by a number of notable Hollywood names like Nicolas Cage, Donald Sutherland, Bill Nighy, Charlize Theron, and Nathan Lane, among many, I have to say, I was not so sure. I often think that voice acting by “name” celebrities is an expensive-cheap way of marketing the product and really not about characterization. Cage’s voice, as Astro’s father, just sounds a lot like Nicolas Cage to me, as does Sutherland’s villainous President Stone, and to an extent Nighy’s Dr. Elefun and Lane’s Ham Egg. What’s distracting for me, perhaps doesn’t make nearly the difference to most people, and definitely not the kids.
This is a re-telling of the “origin” story of Astro, the son of a scientist, a boy named Toby, is killed, and then re-created as a robot, Astro, in his son’s image. But with rocket-fueled feet and “machine guns in his butt”, among other powers. The character originated in a manga in the 1950’s by Osamu Tezuka (often considered to be the “Walt Disney of Japan”) and found his original animation in the 1960’s for television. And from the 1980’s shows, the stories carry more pathos, with characters dying and adventure sequences that are more dramatic than a lot of shows. I guess the reason that this may seem surprising is that while in the film Toby is noted to be 13, he looks about 8. He is Astro-“boy” after all, perpetually child-like.
The film’s most interesting storyline has the planet Earth abandoned as a trash heap, while a super city floats above the planet (including Mt. Fuji), dumping the carcases of robots and junk directly onto the planet. Life on the planet is that of life on a scrapheap, indeed. And the orphaned children who gather round Ham Egg, a robot-builder who builds robots to fight other robots. The planet is not unlike the Earths of WALL-E (2008) or 9 (2009), a dystopia made from pollution and garbage, a seemingly more common theme among science fiction animation aimed at children of late.
Though I didn’t realize it before, Astro Boy is directed by David Bowers, who had last directed the also surprisingly good Flushed Away (2006), showing a stronger hand at narrative and characterization than the average feature animation director, while not necessarily getting the attention of a Pixar-like director.
Animation is booming. Which by and large I like, though in quantity, the volume of quality doesn’t necessarily match in regards to growth. For every Flushed Away, there are at least ten Bolt‘s (2008), where everything is by the numbers and lacking wit, character, verve, and just wind up either purely cloying or attempting to be funny with the same stock characters that are in every film. Astro Boy, while not nearly as good as Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo (2008) or Henry Selick’s Coraline (2009), is certainly a cut above average and was better than I had imagined it would be. And while Felix was moderate in his appreciation, Clara loved it. She’s big on Astroboy.