For whatever reason, the folks at Summit Entertainment are aggressively promoting “Astro Boy” to college campuses. Maybe it’s something about the nostalgic appeal of the brand name — the Japanese comic book series on which the film is based dates back to the 1950s and is widely considered some of the best manga ever written. The subsequent anime adaptation is a pioneering work of art.
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Even still, here we are in 2009 with a completely Americanized film adaptation that has whitewashed out every Japanese influence except the big doe eyes, and the result is nothing more than a bland movie for bland kiddies.
Because the source material for “Astro Boy” pre-dates most modern science fiction, it’s difficult to say who’s ripping off whom. But still, there’s no denying that the opening sequence — a mock-infomercial extolling the virtues of robots built for human service, played in a city floating above piles of garbage on the Earth’s surface — plays like a carbon copy of “WALL-E.” Even if this moment and later moments that seem to reference “The Iron Giant” and “I, Robot” are just coincidental, the film doesn’t add anything new or interesting to these basic sci-fi concepts, which is troubling in itself.
Also concerning is the lack of enthusiasm on display from the voice actors. Voice acting is the least important aspect of an animated film until it becomes distracting. The professional actor who plays Astro (Freddy Highmore, “Finding Neverland”) is somehow much less convincing with his screams and shouts of glee than the star of “Up” (first-timer Jordan Nagai).
Nicolas Cage is here too as Astro’s father, who rebuilds his human son as a robot after he is killed by a rogue experiment. Predictably, Nathan Lane (“The Lion King”) is the most comfortable behind the mic: His character, a Fagin-like repairman who houses orphans in his foster home, is one of the only people in the film who gets any laughs.
There’s too much and yet not enough going on in “Astro Boy.” The plot takes forever to get off the ground, as the first act is set almost entirely in small, claustrophobic, blue-tinted rooms and the audience is never given a sense that a real city exists outside of them. It seems like the filmmakers are trying to wrestle with deeper questions about philosophy — there’s a reference to Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” in the film — while trying to work in some clumsy political satire. A sleazy politician’s re-election banner reads, “It’s Not Time for Change.” Does any of this work? Not really.
The movie picks up when Astro leaves his city for the wild, anything-goes lifestyle found on the planet’s surface. It’s here where he meets the hilarious Robot Revolution Front (RRF) and stays in an orphanage where a girl cuts her pizza with a chainsaw. Unfortunately, these moments of relative brilliance don’t do enough to offset the ridiculously predictable story arc, nor do they redeem the Saturday-morning-cartoons-in-shiny-Spandex vibe that permeates the rest of the film. There’s so much under-utilized potential in the RRF that it feels like an entirely separate movie starring them was cut out of this one.
Despite its attempts to be warm and fuzzy, this kid’s movie can’t escape its cold and robotic demeanor. A heartfelt talk between two scientists hits the film’s emotional climax when one says, “He’s programmed with the memories of your son. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
“Astro Boy” is programmed with the memories of a great franchise, but ultimately the film lacks a soul, and it shouldn’t mean anything to you.