The animated ASTRO BOY may derive from Japanese manga (their version of comic books), but it has spawned many TV series and movies over the years. This is an entertaining if disposable version that may spook youngsters at several points while not being dark enough for more sophisticated or jaded viewers.
The story is set in “Metro City,” a floating paradise that hovers over the trash-strewn Earth. When Dr. Tenma’s (Nicolas Cage) son dies in a science experiment gone wrong, Tenma recreates the boy as a robot, complete with all his son’s memories. Indeed, it takes a while for the robot to realize he is a robot. He’s powered by something called “blue matter,” derived by Dr. Elefun (Bill Nighy) but now wanted by General Stone (Donald Sutherland). Stone wants it to power a new superweapon which he thinks will help him win re-election.
When Stone is ready to take him by force, the robot ends up falling from Metro City to the Earth’s surface. There he discovers that people down there live among the garbage, scavenging among the robot trash cast off from above. He is befriended both by a group of kids, who call him Astro, and motley group of robot revolutionaries, adding a subplot that that doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions. Things play out with lots of cartoon robot violence – such as Astro having to fight other robots in an arena as in the 2001 Spielberg bomb “A.I.” – before the story is resolved. No spoilers here. You had to know we were in for a happy ending. Indeed, we even get a set up for a sequel. This is as much the launch of a prospective franchise as anything else.
Those who have never seen “Astro Boy” in any of its prior incarnations will still feel a sense of familiarity, and even unoriginality, here. While the animators do a nice job creating a three-dimensional look without the necessity of 3D glasses, there’s hardly a surprise in the story. If Dr. Tenma rejects Astro as a substitute for his dead son, you can guess they’ll be reconciled at film’s end. Another character echoes Fagin from “Oliver Twist.” Voiced by Nathan Lane, you just know this supposed nice guy is up to no good.
Give the filmmakers credit for trying to bridge the gap between Hollywood animation, which is geared for “family audiences” and Japanese anime which appeals to teens and adults (with even the films clearly intended for children showing remarkable sophistication). Children will enjoy “Astro Boy” but may find the scenes of death – the boy dies twice in the film – somewhat frightening. Yet, despite that, so much of the rest of the film is so clearly pitched to youngsters that adults may find themselves looking at their watches rather than the screen.
It looks good, but if this “Astro Boy” is going to launch a new series, one can only hope the writing the next time out is not as, well…robotic.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.