There are two ways to talk about Astro-Boy, each a little incomplete, so I must speak of both. Way #1 is as an Osamu Tezuka fan, seeing his work adapted for the big screen for a primarily English-speaking audience. Way #2 is to just see it as something created for and marketed to younger viewers. The first way, for me, lies disappointment. The second way … well, it’s a little harder to say since I’m not seven anymore.
And yet I can see kids in the single digits enjoying this immensely, while their parents at least don’t feel like they need to nap with their eyes open. It has energy and spirit and its heart in the right place, although I know I’m forever doomed to see it as a gateway to the main event: the original comics, and of course everything else Tezuka did. It’s not like we could expect them to make Ode to Kirihito, but it’s also not like choosing Astro-Boy means they settled for lesser source material.
The picture’s an origin story for Astro, mixed with a pro-ecology conceit that lifts the words but not the music from something like PIXAR’s Wall·E. The floating Metro City is home to both man and robot, with the latter serving the former, and the blighted world below serving as Metro City’s garbage dump (for both machines and men). Dr. Tenma of the Ministry of Science (voiced by Nicholas Cage) grieves when his brilliant son Toby (Freddie Highmore) is killed in a ghastly accident involving a war-machine robot powered by “blue-core energy”, which most of us SF buffs know better as Handwavium. Tenma’s obsession drives him to recreate his son in robot form, loaded with defensive weaponry to prevent another disaster.
But, as Michael Jackson once pointed out, the kid is not his son, and not long after Toby/Astro discovers his machine powers and almost wrecks part of the city in the process, he has a very literal falling-out with Dad and ends up on the surface. There he finds company amongst a gang of scavenger urchins who in turn find shelter under the wing of the robot salvager Hamegg. Despite his smile and his outward kindness, Hamegg is equal parts Simon Legree and Fagin: when he learns Astro’s machine, not man, he kidnaps the hapless ‘bot and throws him into his gladiatorial ring. Needless to say, Astro refuses to fight, although we find out he wields a mean butt-gun when cornered. Soon he’s fighting to keep Metro City from being absorbed into a giant suit of armor powered by the evil “red-core energy” and piloted by the burg’s megalomaniacal mayor.
I enjoyed myself, but I also felt like I was watching very talented people settle for less out of fear. It’s all not so much Tezuka as it is the sort of animated filmmaking product that came out of the likes of 20th Century Fox’s and Dreamworks’s animation divisions. They themselves followed the Disney mold — adaptations of well-known tales, cute sidekicks, musical numbers — but never quite broke away from the formula the way, say, Don Bluth was able to do periodically. The fact that they’re using CGI here doesn’t change anything: it still has the same slightly by-committee feel, where with Bluth and the best of the Disney productions there was the sense of a firm hand at the controls leading things somewhere.
The most obvious comparison to make is with PIXAR, and not because of the animation. What always makes PIXAR’s productions so special is their shameless and total insistence on story, story, story. The look of the film, the quality of the animation, the details in the backgrounds or the design of the characters all line up and march behind its story, not in front of it. It’s tough, because with any animated film the first impulse is to simply let the images tell the story — or, rather, to let showing images substitute for having any story to be told through them. And while Astro-Boy has the occasional nod towards Tezuka’s moral concerns, it’s not the same thing as having a story actually, well, powered by them.
So here’s my suggestion. Grab this for the kids. Then wait a couple of years, and grab — for both them and yourself — Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto, a reworking of Astro-Boy’s mythos into a story with amazing gravity. No chance of that getting made into a movie over here, I’d bet, but oh can a man ever dream.