Seventeen years have gone by since the release of writer-director Katsuhiro Otomo’s revolutionary anime film “Akira.” The classic film about violent teenagers in a futuristic Tokyo rebelling against the government ushered in the mainstreaming of Japanese animation for American audiences. After spending many years in production and enduring several setbacks, Otomo has completed “Steamboy,” the long-awaited follow-up to “Akira.”
The film boasts all the visual splendor that “Akira” did, but the film struggles with its simplistic, dense plot and unimpressive protagonists.In Industrial Revolution-era England, teenager Ray Steam (Anna Paquin, “X2: X-Men United”) is an ambitious inventor, just like his father Eddie (Alfred Molina, “Spider-Man 2”) and grandfather Lloyd (Patrick Stewart). One day, Ray receives an invention called the “steam ball,” which can release steam at high pressures, from his grandfather.
Even though the steam ball is meant for good, the evil O’Hara Foundation wants to use it for war and will stop at nothing to seize control of the contraption. Ray is eventually torn between his father and his grandfather, unsure which one of them is telling the truth about who they are involved with.
Unfortunately, Otomo seems rusty in the storytelling department. As mature and political “Akira” was with its meaty plotlines, well-developed characters and social commentary, Otomo’s latest proves to be the complete antithesis. The movie doesn’t offer any absorbing qualities other than its period setting. Its handling of the theme — how science should be used for good — borders on cliché. The plot of “Steamboy,” while usually coherent, feels loose, taking its terminology too seriously and lacking any intricacies. The American version of the movie also hacks off 20 minutes; this is probably a blessing, as the inclusion of anything extra would probably just weigh things down more.
Most of the story’s wasted potential occurs in the development of its characters, who are all given stereotypical personality traits. While Otomo could have created a dramatic focus on the nature of the bonds between fathers and sons, the director makes it clear that he doesn’t find personal relationships between characters worth exploring.
Otomo may have also indirectly created a new subgenre of Japanese animation — “Bruckheimer-anime.” Besides the standard characters, thin plot and clunky dialogue (“Mankind will be mesmerized by science’s awesome power!”), most of the movie is made up of chase sequences and bombastic action that don’t add to the film’s development. The last 40 minutes of “Steamboy,” during which Victorian London is on the verge of completely destruction, offers some promise but lacks tension, faltering because of the grating, excruciatingly repetitive violence.
The only real saving grace to “Steamboy” is its fantastic visuals, which are presented in overwhelming detail. While the animation isn’t as groundbreaking or intense as in “Akira,” it flows smoothly and is still a marvel to look at — particularly in the film’s rendition of mid-19th century London.
The voice acting for the English language version isn’t anything special. Molina sleepwalks through his lines, and even though Paquin successfully speaks an octave lower to pass as a boy, she could use more enthusiasm. The only standout performance is by Stewart, who is convincing and passionate with the readings for his grandfather character. “Steamboy” is a purely mechanical movie: It’s functional and is pleasing to look at but offers no warmth or lasting value.
Those with a desire to see good anime should rent “Castle In The Sky” from esteemed director Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki’s 1986 film also takes place during the Industrial Revolution, portrays robust characters and deals with generational bonds much more competently. The biggest difference, though, is that “Castle” actually has a heart.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars