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Movie Review: Astro Boy
For a movie about robots, Astro Boy is surprisingly wooden. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have heart.
Based on the work of Japanese comic book artist and animator Osamu Tezuka, this CGI version of what’s widely regarded as the first anime is largely faithful to the beloved character. First published in 1952 and animated in 1963, the future-set Astro Boy is the story of Dr. Tenma (voiced by Nicolas Cage), top scientist at the Ministry of Science whose son Toby (Freddie Highmore) dies in a tragic accident. Fueled by grief, Tenma builds a super-powered robot likeness of his son into which Toby’s memories are implanted. Though the robot Astro has all of his son’s curiosity, intelligence and warmth, Dr. Tenma realizes his son can’t be replaced and he cruelly casts him out of the Ministry of Science, creating in Astro a Pinocchio complex where all he wants is to be thought of as a real boy.
Whereas the Ministry of Science exists on the idyllic, floating island-in-the-sky of Metro City, Astro finds himself outcast to the surface world, a very Wall-E-like landscape of mountains made of discarded robot parts that are populated by orphaned children. A group of by kids lead by Cora (Kristen Bell) befriend Astro and take him to see Hamegg (Nathan Lane), an entrepreneur and showman cast-off from Metro City by Dr. Tenma himself. Hamegg turns out to be more than a little interested in Astro, as is President Stone (Donald Sutherland), the leader of Metro City who seeks a military conflict in order to rally public support for his re-election. In a nod to American military sensibilities (which will sail right over the heads of the kids in the audience), Stone travels in a large warship called The Spirit of Freedom, and wants Astro for the Blue Core energy that Tenma installed in his robot body for use in a war robot called the Peacekeeper.
While earlier versions of Astro Boy had him gallivanting about in metallic green shorts, red boots and nothing else, this time around Astro actually gets clothes to wear. But in covering him up, his character is subdued as well. No longer is Astro wildly curious and mischievous. He’s much more subdued. Even when he gets into trouble, he’s doing his best to set things right. In fact, his character is very much in tune with the characters that Freddie Highmore has played in the past, such as Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Peter in Finding Neverland - good little boys who are good at heart. And while that fits the character of Astro Boy, this doesn’t make the most entertaining of movies.
It should be noted that the action in Astro Boy is pretty great. There’s plenty of explosions and high-flying theatrics to keep kids engaged. But compared to the very entertaining and funny Flushed Away, the previous effort by director David Bowers, Astro Boy’s humor is forced, leaden and groan-inducing. Which means that for adults, Astro Boy is just…okay.
Comic relief has largely been handed over to a group of robots that call themselves the Robot Revolutionary Front (RRF), who attempt to steer Astro away from Hamegg. In one scene, the RRF (Sparx, Robotsky and Mike the Fridge, played respectively by Matt Lucas, Bill Nighy and Bowers) don lame cardboard disguises, and when they’re ready to “transform” (get it?) out of their costumes they make whirring, grinding noises with their mouths. (Lame.) The other comic relief comes from two robots shaped as a spray bottle and window wiper called Mr. Squirt (David Alan Grier) and Mr. Squeegee (Alan Tudyk) who inexplicably keep showing up. (Meanwhile, the best voice in the cast, Samuel L. Jackson, gets two lines. That’s it.) There’s some attempts at visual humor for the adults, like a book by the philosopher Descartes called Before the Horse (Ouch.), but it’s just not enough.
By the end, Astro has saved the day and everything is right in this world of the future. But that shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Unless you’re a kid. And really, that’s the only demographic that should be seeing this movie.
Review by Ryan Vincent