by HELEN GEIB
Astro Boy is an animated family film about a robot boy who becomes a superhero. Although the film is an American production, Astro Boy’s hero is the latest incarnation of a character created by pioneering Japanese author and animator Osamu Tezuka in the early 1950s. Astro originated in manga and after a successful print career, made the transition to the small screen as the star of the first anime series. International success followed when the anime series became one of the first Japanese cartoons broadcast in the U.S.
None of this background material is necessary information for enjoying the movie, which is a standalone origins story. I have not read or seen any of the Astro series, and the last paragraph is the product of post-movie research, but based on that research and the impression I took away from seeing it, Astro Boy is a respectful updating of the franchise.
Astro’s birthplace is a futuristic levitating city in the clouds built around and on advanced robotics technology. His creator is Dr. Tenma, along with Dr. Elefun one of Metro City’s two leading scientists. The two men represent common popular conceptions of scientists: Dr. Tenma is the hardheaded pragmatist who willingly accepts military commissions as the price of receiving lavish state funding for non-military scientific pursuits, while his colleague Dr. Elefun is the idealistic dreamer. After his young son Toby is tragically killed in a weapons testing debacle precipitated by Metro City’s military-civilian leader President Stone, Dr. Tenma creates a robot in the exact likeness – down to the molecular level – of his dead child. Deranged by grief, Dr. Tenma initially thinks to replace Toby, but quickly rejects his robot “son” after it becomes unmistakably clear that, DNA notwithstanding, the copy has a unique personality.
In a high-tech mumbo-jumbo (science-)fiction, the robot boy is powered by a blue energy core extracted from an extraterrestrial object with an immense energy capacity. In an obvious metaphor for nuclear fission, the blue, life-giving core exists in equal and opposite equilibrium with a red, life-destroying core. Dr. Elefun dreams of harnessing the power of the blue core to repair the environmental depredations of preceding generations; President Stone, on the other hand, immediately perceives the military potential of the red core. Homeless and a military target, the robot boy falls to the planet’s surface. It is during his adventures on the surface that he receives the name Astro, makes human and robot friends, and learns to control his super-human powers.
Astro Boy is really quite an enjoyable movie for children and their parents. There is a lot of comedy, much of it involving either cute, precocious children or dopey and/or funny-looking robots. There is also a lot of action as Astro learns to fly, escapes from warships, battles other robots in gladiatorial combat, and fights a climactic fight to the death with a red core-powered robot monster.
There is good voicework in the major roles by Freddie Highmore (Astro), Nicolas Cage (Dr. Tenma), Bill Nighy (Dr. Elefun), Nathan Lane (a conniving mechanic), and Kristen Bell (as Cora, Astro’s human best friend). Donald Sutherland’s just this side of hammy turn as President Stone is particularly amusing.
The animation is also very pleasing, with fluid character designs and detailed backgrounds. The screen is filled with bright colors and there are some charming animation set-pieces, like an early scene of Astro creating fanciful paper flying-machines out of the pages of an old manuscript and a late dramatic scene accented by fluttering cherry blossoms.
For the most part, Astro Boy is light family entertainment (I’ll get to the exception in a moment); however, within that context the film delivers numerous moral lessons pitched to the level of understanding of its target young audience. In addition to the make clean energy not war message and the strongly negative depiction of Metro City’s military under idiot-despot President Stone, the filmmakers preach the virtues of recycling and conservation. The anti-discrimination message inherent in the entirely human-like Astro’s dramatic struggle for acceptance is bolstered by an oppressed robots rising up against their human oppressors comedic sub-plot. The importance of strong family and community bonds is a central theme developed in Astro’s fraught quasi-familial relationship with Dr. Tenma, the plight of the abandoned children he befriends on the surface, and Astro’s commitment to defending Metro City.
A final word of caution to parents: Astro Boy is not for the faint of heart. The likable Toby dies on screen, literally vaporized by a demonic killing machine. And Astro “dies” twice, albeit only momentarily in each case, but in one of them at the hands of the grief-stricken Dr. Tenma.