Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
November 2009

Boy Wonder

Like its main character, 'Astro Boy' is all mechanics and moving pieces, but no heart

Astro Boy
Summit Entertainment
Director: David Bowers
Screenplay: Timothy Harris and David Bowers, based on the manga series created by Osamu Tezuka
Starring: The voices of Freddie Highmore, Kristen Bell, Nicolas Cage, Nathan Lane, Donald Sutherland, Bill Nighy and Eugene Levy
Rated PG / 1 hour, 34 minutes
(out of four)

Astro Boy is like a combination of A.I., Pinocchio, Iron Man, Oliver Twist and Gladiator - except, ya know, for kids! It briskly tells the story of a brilliant scientist who loses his son in a freak accident and spends his scientific resources building a new son that appears identical, but has a different soul. And rocket-powered boots.

Really, there's not much to it - and the substance it does offer is whitewashed and/or simplified. When you see a movie like this, you have to wonder why anyone took the time to fill it with so much obvious thematic potential if they weren't going to make the effort to explore it. Instead, the movie is satisfied simply by jumping around to plot points and action scenes.

This is what I mean when I so often talk about kids' movies getting the short shrift. There's plenty to do with a movie like this, but rarely does anyone take the time. Astro Boy boasts some nice animation and a fine voice cast, but beyond that, little more than rote formula. It's a movie that falls in that dreaded "in-between" category - it's reasonably effective enough to get the job done for its younger intended audience, but not nearly effective enough to actually be memorable.

I'm unfamiliar with the original manga series Astro Boy is based on, so I can't speak to its fidelity, but the film adaptation treats its story with all the care of marking off items on a checklist. In one pivotal scene, the plot goes from point A to point B and back to point A again, all in the span of about 30 seconds. It's workmanlike at the expense of being interesting. Please, give me a sprawling mess over über-efficient mediocrity.

Disappointingly, the area of the film that has the most potential isn't given the development time it deserves; the meat is all trimmed away. The essence of the story is in Dr. Tenma (voiced by Nicolas Cage) understanding his own responsibility to his creation(s) - and coming to terms with the death of his son.

Tenma is a strict father, not-so-subtly nudging his son Toby (Freddie Highmore) toward a career in the advanced sciences. Tenma himself is a renowned scientist in Metro City and expects his boy to reach, if not surpass, those same heights. So prodigious is Toby's talent that he's able to quickly rewire the family's robot servant, Orrin (Eugene Levy), to take him to the Ministry of Science against his father's wishes. (Those rebellious grade-schoolers - always looking for any excuse to learn more science!)

Unfortunately, Toby snuck into Dad's work on the wrong day. He happens upon Tenma and his friend and mentor, Dr. Elefun (Bill Nighy), working on a military project involving robotics spearheaded by the hawkish President Stone (Donald Sutherland). In a freak accident, Toby winds up as the collateral damage of a disastrous and destructive experiment. Heartbroken, Tenma builds himself a new boy, implanting all of his son's memories into the new version, which looks and sounds exactly like Toby. The rocket boots, superhuman strength and flying ability are all part of Tenma's plan to never lose his son again, under any circumstances.

Until the next day, when he realizes that his Toby doppelgänger just isn't the same, and decides to get rid of it. But - oops! - before Tenma can take him back to the lab, Astro flies away and finds refuge among the poor and destitute of the Earth's surface, hovering well below the glamour and industry of Metro City.

Lost among the piles of rubbish, discarded robots and discarded children left on Earth, Astro finds allies in a group of orphans and their Fagin-esque leader, Hamegg (Nathan Lane) - not to mention a trio of likeable, bumbling resistance-fighter robots that would probably render Glenn Beck catatonic if he ever saw this movie.

But for all that happens over the last hour of the film, the essence of it all seems to have been lost on the filmmakers. So little time is devoted to the development of Astro Boy as a being, and to Tenma's own conflict about it, that it renders Astro's exploits that much less interesting. The film would have been well served to get to the bottom of the character first, and turn him into a superhero second.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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