11/19/09

Review: Astro Boy (2009)


Astro Boy is an Americanized adaptation of a Japanese manga story, and fairly well done. If it brings to mind the Superman story (or the Nativity story), Fritz Lang's Metropolis, the Star Wars movies, A.I., WALL*E, or other futuristic robot stories and films, I'm sure this is intentional. Nevertheless, it holds its own as an independent story, though it's maybe a bit dark or rough for the youngest kids.

Toby (voice of Freddie Highmore) is the son of the ruthless but brilliant scientist Dr. Tenma (voiced by Nicolas Cage) in Metro City, a floating city sent aloft with technology to avoid the environmental despoliation which has befallen the Earth. In Metro City, tech is everything, and techies and the politicians who can exploit their know-how have all the power. Robots do all the work, and, when used up or made obsolete, are dumped down onto the surface of the Earth.

Toby, like his father, is a whiz at science and technology, and an all-around perfect kid, until he sneaks into the Ministry of Science to see the debut of his father's latest invention, the Peacekeeper. An unfortunate decision to power the new defense robot with negative instead of positive energy leads to an accident which takes Toby's life.

Overcome with grief, Dr. Tenma creates a sort of resurrected Toby (still voiced by Highmore), armed with all the latest and greatest defensive technology and powered, this time correctly, with the positive energy core. Still, upset that he may not have made a perfect replica, Tenma decides to power down his creation, but before he can, the new Toby escapes capture and finds himself in the dumps on the surface.

There, he meets some fellow orphans of the surface and falls in with them as they scavenge for robot parts for the Metro City exile and robot repairman Ham Egg (voice of Nathan Lane), a sort of futuristic Fagin with his own agenda for Astro, the new name our hero takes for himself. The Robot Liberation Front, mostly ineffective, provides some ongoing comic relief as they pursue their mostly ineffective schemes for the "Robotolution."

Astro rehabilitates a big, old security robot named Zog (voice of Samuel L. Jackson) for Ham Egg to use in the "Robot Games," which Astro first mistakenly believes to be a sort of fun Olympics, but which turns out to be much more gladatorial, with a starring role for himself, which kind of blows Ham Egg's nascent father-figure qualities out of the water for him.

Meanwhile, the government of Metro City wants its positive energy core back to start a war with the surface and facilitate the reelection of President Stone (voice of Donald Sutherland), so, foolishly, the Peacekeeper is reprogrammed and fired up again with the negative energy core to reacquire Astro. This turns out pretty predictably, but is well handled, with the "adaptive technology" capabilities of the Peacekeeper imaginatively portrayed.

The vocal talents are all pretty good, and the animation is above par, a blend of Japanimation and almost stop-motion quality digital techniques. I found its future more interesting and persuasive than the deadworld of WALL*E.

In all, Astro Boy is entertaining, well animated, and has a little something to say about robots, technology, grief, selflessness and heroism. It's a pretty good time at the movies.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

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