For many people in America Astro Boy is either remembered as an old sixties show or the first anime to air on American TV. In Japan Astro Boy is far more important to their culture. Not only was it the first real success to come from legendary comic artist Osamu Tezuka, but it pretty much launched the manga and anime industry, which Japan’s economy is based so heavily on now. Astro Boy is to Japan what Mickey Mouse is to America. Japan loves him so much that they even made the boy a Japanese citizen (no joke). Now we have an American film simply titled “Astro Boy.” Unlike the recent “Speed Racer” and “Dragon Ball: Evolution” though, this movie is animated in CGI.
This leads to a unique look of the film that serves it quite well. It looks like it’s anime counterpart, but modern enough so that it doesn’t look outdated and stale. The movie has also been given an all star voice cast including Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell, Donald Sutherland, Nathan Lane, Samual L. Jackson, and a bunch of other celebrities that only kind-of elevate these characters above what a normal voice actor could. Ah, but how does all this play out? Well, the movie is an origin story, and as such is begins with a young boy named Toby (Highmore) who is the brilliant son of the scientist Dr. Tenma (Cage). During a science demonstration gone wrong Toby is killed and his father gives into grief.
In response to this Tenma recreates his son as a robot, but soon comes to hate the robot as he starts to develop his own personality. The original series was written shortly after the Japanese fell to World War II, and at that time the Japanese were fearful of technology and how destructive it could be. Tezuka agreed that the Atom Bomb was a terrible creation, but felt that technology was not something to be feared and, when used properly, could lead Japan to prosperity. You won’t find those themes in this movie. Time has passed, Japan rules when it comes to cool toys, and so the focus is more on the doctor responding to the growing humanity in the artificial son he’s created. This is not a road I expected it to take, but it was a very emotional and powerful one, and I’m glad the animators took a chance on it.
The downside is to make this film more marketable there is a villain president (Sutherland) who wants to win his re-election by creating a war (similarities to a former president are - hopefully - coincidental). This character doesn’t work because he’s evil to be evil. He might have made a more menacing villain if he had some motivations and feelings behind his plans, but he simply comes off as ignorant and stupid. Also a storyline involving ground people who build robots to make them fight is also uninspiring and useless. The only good thing to come from this story is Cora, a runaway who develops a deep friendship with Toby and gives him the name Astro.
Should a sequel develop we’re likely to get some conflicts on how a human who doesn’t age loves a robot who will never die. Looking back at what I’ve just written I may have unintentionally made “Astro Boy” sound like Shakespear or something deep. It’s not. It’s still good old fashioned fun. But unlike the more recent “Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs,” “Astro Boy” at least offers some depth to it’s character and story. It may be more gloss then shine, but it does make the film more worthwhile then it otherwise would have been. The best children’s film in theaters is still “Where The Wild Things Are,” but if you’ve already seen that one then “Astro Boy” makes a good second choice.