2009, PG, 94 min. Directed by David Bowers. Voices by Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Nathan Lane, Donald Sutherland, Kristen Bell, Eugene Levy, Bill Nighy, Samuel L. Jackson, Charlize Theron.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 23, 2009
Osamu Tezuka's pioneering Japanese manga and animé series about the coolest robot kid ever finally achieves Americanized big-screen status. While Mighty Atom purists (of which I am one) may mutter that something has been lost in the translation – the inherently futuristic feel of subtitled Japanese dialogue upon a gaijin's (or foreigner’s) ear is, as any Tezuka fan will enthuse, always preferable over clunky old English – this Astro Boy remains true to the heart and soul of the original. The initial origin story emerges relatively unscathed: Brilliant robotics scientist Dr. Tenma (Cage) builds a superpowered nuts ’n' bolts copy of Toby (Highmore), his own flesh ’n' blood offspring, after the real boy is killed in a tragic accident. Imbuing the robotic doppelgänger with all of Toby’s memories, the grieving, half-mad dad tries to keep the boy android unaware of his nonhuman reality, but that plan goes awry almost immediately once the new Toby discovers he has jet thrusters in his legs, not to mention superstrength and an iconic haircut and – kickass! – machine guns in his butt. However, once robo-Toby makes the leap from boy to Astro Boy, his father rejects him (not a pleasant sequence or concept for any kid under the age of 10 to watch, but honest to Tezuka's original). Crushed, Astro Boy jets away and ends up falling in with a pack of Earth-surface moppets and their Fagin-esque adult ringmaster, Hamegg (Lane). Tenma and all the other adults live in the very shiny Metro City, which floats high above the surface of the horrifically polluted Earth (shades of WALL-E). Screenwriter Timothy Harris (Space Jam) comes up with a few new twists on Tezuka's original – most notably the nascent romance between Astro and plucky surface-dweller Cora (Bell) – and this Astro Boy moves along at least as snappily as its rocket-powered protagonist. (There's even a passing reference to Tod Browning's Freaks and the philosophy of Immanuel Kant!) But ultimately, as an old-school Astro Boy fan and collector who has a 12-inch-high, die-cast resin model of the character staring me in the eye as I type this, Bowers' take on the animé legend feels too indebted to the far superior The Iron Giant and overstreamlined in both story and animation. It's a totally serviceable reboot for young people who are just discovering the joys of manga, but I can't help but miss the raw animation and even rawer emotional aesthetics of the original televised animé series.