Astro Boy (2009) (DVD)

“I have machine guns…in my butt?”

Tezuka Osamu’s legendary creation Astro Boy is considered by most to be a landmark in both manga and anime, serving as an inspiration for generations of artists and animators who followed. Therefore, it’s only natural that the little guy get the big Americanized Hollywood treatment.

It’s the future. Thanks to advances in robotics, life is nearly perfect in Metro City, which hovers in the air over the environmentally disastrous wasteland on the Earth’s surface. Dr. Tenma (Nicholas Cage, Ghost Rider) is the chief robotics specialist in Metro City, who is devastated by the sudden death of his son, Toby (Freddie Highmore, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Working in the lab late one night, Tenma creates a robotic version of the boy. Unfortunately, it’s not having his son back, so the grief-stricken doc shuns the Toby and throws the robo-kid out of the house. Toby eventually ends up on the surface, where he’s given a new name, Astro, and he’s befriended by a group of ragtag orphans and their tinkerer pal (Nathan Lane, The Lion King). Eventually, Astro’s old life comes looking for him, as power-mad politician President Stone (Donald Sutherland, An American Haunting) hungers for the blue positive energy core that powers Astro, in the hopes of turning it into a deadly weapon.

Theorizing about a movie’s influences can be a tricky thing. You can look at any anime and trace its artistic lineage back to the original Astro Boy, just as it can be traced back to classics like Pinocchio and Frankenstein. The 2009 movie has influences galore, along with the original manga and anime. You can look at the “Earth is a wasteland while humans live above it all in a robot-led paradise” thing and see hints of Wall-E, you can look at a robot fightin’ arena and see hints of Gladiator and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. The whole superhero origin thing will likely remind you of stuff like Spider-Man, Iron Man or The Incredibles. The movie has big action, goofy humor, colorful visuals, and so on, but it’s so reminiscent of other films you’ll spend most of your time thinking, “Hey this reminds me of [some other movie].” Some might argue that because Astro Boy the character predates a lot of these influences, what look like influences are really throwbacks to the original manga and anime. That, then, leads to another question. If you have nothing new to say with your remake, why do it?

OK, so say you’ve just discovered you’re not who thought you are. You’re really a robot recreation of someone who died. You have all of that person’s memories and personality, but you’re not that person. That’s the mind-bending conundrum faced by our hero. This internal conflict is only sort-of glossed over. The other big personal conflict in the movie is Tenma rejecting Astro and throwing him out of the house. This didn’t work for me at all. Tenma rejects Astro because Astro is so different from Toby. When we first meet Toby, he’s incredibly smart and a bit of a troublemaker. Later, when he’s, uh, “replaced” by Astro, Astro is also incredibly smart and a bit of a troublemaker. Then why, in what should be the most heartbreaking scene in the movie, does Tenma reject Astro because Astro is so different from Toby? The audience can’t see these differences, so the big moment comes out of nowhere. In general, Astro as a character is a nice guy, heroic with just a hint of a mischievous side. Even though he’s nice, he doesn’t have that much a distinctive personality. At this point, you might ask, “Who cares about all this internal strife when all I want from a movie like this is robots fightin’ robots?” Don’t worry, you’ll get your robots fightin’ robots, but if the movie is going to introduce these internal crises, then it should do more than either drop them or wrap them up in a trite convenient way.

Speaking of which, the movie introduces a new character into the Astro Boy mythology, spunky young fixit girl Cora, (Kristen Bell, Couples Retreat). She’s really only here to give him someone to talk to while he’s on the surface. Her subplot about her past is resolved in the most simplistic manner possible, so much that you’ll think, “That’s it?” Also on the surface world, Astro runs into the movie’s comic relief, three robots who long to start a revolution against humans. They do so in the most clueless, bumbling way possible. They have some amusing moments, but I fail to see what they’re doing in the movie at all, as they don’t seem to add anything to the plot.

Despite these concerns, the movie isn’t terrible. When Astro flies for the first time, it’s a great moment, perfectly capturing the “flying hero flies for the first time” thrill. And, yes, the robot fightin’ is appropriately big and destructive. All the backgrounds, especially the gleaming high-tech city, are nicely designed without being over-designed. Acting-wise, Sutherland take what could have been just another evil politician cliché and gives the character a sense of playful humor, which makes him more interesting than you’d expect. Conversely, Bill Nighy (Shaun of the Dead) takes what looks like a comic relief character and makes him the heart of the movie.

As you’d expect from a recently-made all-CGI movie, the picture quality is crisp and clear, with no defects to be seen. The sound excels as well, making the most of the booming explosions and the old-timey heroic score by John Ottman (The Usual Suspects). The extras are all kid-friendly, with featurettes about the voice actors, the design work, and recreating Astro Boy’s distinctive look. On the more humorous side is a featurette about kids and the occasional adult lining up to get their hair done in “Astro Boy style (the secret: lots and lots of gel). The extras are rounded out by a pair of brand new shorts featuring characters from the movie.

After seeing the trailer, I was jazzed for Astro Boy. There was no reason it couldn’t have been the most exciting, action-packed blockbuster of the year. Instead, I was left with the feeling that I’d seen it all before. To me, the worst kinds of movies are the ones that could have been great but instead are just okay. These are the ones you watch once and forget about, instead of the ones folks are still talking about years later.

The Verdict

For the curious, make it a rental. For everyone else, guilty.

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