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Movie Review: Astro Boy

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1963 saw the arrival of the first anime series, Astro Boy (the literal translation is The Mighty Atom). It was based on the Osamu Tezuka manga first published in 1952. The show was a huge hit, with reportedly 40% of television owners in Japan counted among its viewers. The show ended its run in 1966 after 193 episodes. This was not the end of the character, seeing reinventions in both the 1980s and within the past decade. Astro Boy has now made the jump from traditional cell animation to full-on computer animation in a feature film that has been a long time in production.

My experience with the character is minimal at best. That may even be an overstatement — I have seen the character but know little else. So, as I went in to see this film I was unsure of what to expect. I can say that the trailer looked pretty good, save for Nicolas Cage's voice work, and the story seemed to feel fresh yet familiar.

Now, after having seen the movie I can saw that my expectations were affirmed. Astro Boy is a delightful movie with strong animation, good writing, good voice work (save for Cage), and a story that has heart and is simultaneously new and familiar. It is certainly not without its faults, but it is an enjoyable time at the theater, although, I have to wonder what could have been had they gone the extra step.

Astro Boy is set in Metro City. This city has been lifted off the ground by rockets and is suspended high above the surface of the Earth. In its isolated state technology has boomed. People live with robots who take care of all their needs. The man behind the fantastic robot technology is Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage). He also happens to be the minister of science for the advanced city.

Unfortunately, during a test of a new "Peacekeeper" robot something goes tragically wrong. Tenma's brilliant son, Toby (Freddie Highmore), is killed. Wracked with guilt, Tenma creates a robot with the most advanced defense systems ever created in the image of his son. Tenma is even able to load Toby's memories into his new creation. He takes him home and treats him like his own son.

It goes fine at first, but Tenma quickly discovers that his creation is not the exact copy of his son he hoped he would be. In fact, Tenma comes to not be able to stand the sight of the robot he created. Toby hears his father's concerns and runs off.

This alone makes for a interesting story. Nobody warned me that there was going to be such a tragic element to this story! It brought up some conflict within me about the relationship between father and son. On one hand you can see how proud Tenma is of his son and how much he wants him to succeed. On the other hand it also seems that Tenma is also a rather neglectful father figure who spends more time working for the government on morally questionable projects than tending to real science and/or his son. It does make me wonder what Tenma was going through after the loss of Toby. I get the impression that it was an incredibly traumatic experience for him. What I wonder is if his sadness was more for the loss of his son or for the work he was doing that resulted in the loss of his son.

The movie moves past the tragedy in rather quickly with the focus shifting to the newly alone robotic Toby. Toby discovers his robotic abilities by accident, and ends up flying all over the city. This catches the attention of the city's evil mayor (voiced by Donald Sutherland). He sees the enormous power that lies within the boy robot and he sets all of his forces to find the rogue robot.

Toby finds himself exiled to the surface, covered in mounds of discarded robots and metal parts, creating a post-apocalyptic looking landscape. Here he takes the name Astro and falls in with a group of orphans who are entertained by gladiatorial robot battles. Everything continues to build to a climax that sees Astro returning home and facing down those who are out to get him.

This movie has plenty of action to hold your attention, a good dose of humor, and enough character to keep you invested. The problem primarily lies with the writing. What is there is quite good, but it moves by much too fast. Too many potentially interesting characters get the shaft as we speed along. The story never gets to do any more than scratch the surface. It is almost like story and character development were shuttled to the side in favor of speed and run time. Are we becoming that much of a slave to run time? Do we have that little faith in the attention spans of our children that a movie can't go much further than 90 minutes? Perhaps so.

On the other side, what we do get is good. Astro is much like Pinocchio, a faux-being longing to be something more. He goes on an adventure and in turn discovers what his destiny is; he learns where his place is in the universe. There is depth to many of the characters that begs to be explored. It is just a shame that we do not get more in the film itself.

Bottom line. Considering everything about this movie, I have to say it is well worth the time. They may speed through many elements, but it is visually stunning, and narratively sound. The pacing is fast and there is nary a dull moment to be found. Take the kids and you will have a great time.

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