Movie Review: Astro Boy
Astro Boy is proof that Pixar has virtually ruined CG animated filmmaking for its competition. In the midst of sophisticated, multi-layered releases such as Up or WALL.E, Ratatouille, it’s easy to look at a basic, well-executed, family-friendly adventure and somehow think less of it. Astro Boy, for example, is not The Incredibles, nor is it trying to be. Rather, it’s a surface level bit of animated entertainment that’s certain to please children while preventing the parents from nodding off in their seats. It aims unabashedly for the adventurous youngsters in the audience and succeeds in delivering a fun, raucous, visually polished romp through a colorful sci-fi landscape. Nothing more, nothing less.
That said, the film doesn’t stray too far from the relative darkness of its source material. The story of Astro Boy’s creation remains generally the same: The brilliant Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage) and his colleague Dr. Elefun (Bill Nighy) have extracted the power of both red and blue matter – blue representing positive energy and red, of course, representing evil. But when General Stone (Donald Sutherland) seizes the red energy source to power his new unstoppable war machine, Tenma’s son is caught in the crossfire and killed. Yes, killed. Not fake-killed or quasi-killed, but real, 100 percent, no-coming-back dead. And so Tenma, in his grief, creates a robotic replica of his son, Astro Boy (Freddie Highmore), equipping him with unlimited defenses, powered by the blue energy, and downloads the boy’s consciousness into the robot copy.
For all intents and purposes, Astro believes himself to be human, but Tenma quickly learns that a robot is no replacement for a son, and dismisses the boy in his confusion. Sent out into the wasteland below the city, Astro meets a group of orphans supervised by former scientist Ham Egg (Nathan Lane). Among them is Cora (Kristen Bell), a tough pre-teen with a grudge against robots. Hunted by General Stone for the blue energy source within him, Astro must come to terms with his robotic self and prove to Tenma, Cora and the world that despite being a machine, he’s equally as human.
Astro Boy deals with some pretty heavy themes – the death of a child, rejection, robot slavery, warmongering politicians – and if it fails on any real cinematic level, it’s in choosing not to explore these notions in a more meaningful way. The colorful animation and fast-paced action washes over the more complex emotional core of the film, never taking the time to explain these issues to the younger viewers and failing to address them dramatically enough to move the adults in the theater. That said, the very same colorful animation and fast-paced action are both refreshingly executed, so if your kid can either grasp the heavier themes or simply choose to ignore them, there’s a lot of sci-fi spectacle to keep them entertained.
As Astro Boy becomes increasingly aware of his powers and General Stone closes in on him and his newfound family of friends, the action escalates into some fairly impressive sequences of Astro battling giant, city-destorying robots. Meanwhile, the presentation itself is very soft, very clean, offering a stylized look that combines the previous iterations of the series with the polish of CG animation. The vocal performances are all passable, though Cage seems terribly miscast as Tenma, turning in a performance that ultimately fails to capture the character’s struggle. Highmore gives Astro a kind of “golly gee” innocence that makes the boy considerably more affable and Bell’s Cora is a suitable friend-slash-potential love interest.
Overall, Astro Boy is a reasonable, if not perfect, adaptation of the popular franchise that’ll no doubt captivate the kiddies if they can push past some of the darker themes into the vivid, sci-fi action.
Astro Boy is now playing in theater near you. Click HERE to read the synopsis and watch the trailer.