When a film has been in production for ten years and is being lead by a prominent director such as Katsuhiro Otomo, it naturally gains a lot of hype. As many other projects have shown, hype can either make or break you because if expectations are too high you run the risk of the audience being inevitably disappointed. I've wanted to see this film for a long time and while I wasn't totally disappointed with Steamboy, I have to admit that I wasn't very thrilled either.
Otomo's masterpiece Akira was the movie that first introduced me to anime and naturally it holds a lot of nostalgia value. Really it's an unfair comparison to put Steamboy and Akira on the same page, but considering they were both from the mind of Otomo one would hold hope the same quality would be consistent. I suppose you could compare it to a long time Star Wars fans initial reaction to Episode I and all its horridness, but I digress.
Steamboy is without a doubt one of the more impressively visual anime movies I have ever been privy to and every scene is as breathtaking as the next. The late 19th century Victorian era Britain combined with the "steampunk" genre crafts a world that is unique, fantastic and nigh-believable at the same time. The blend of world history and futuristic technology lends itself for an imaginative concept but Steamboy is unfortunately more eye-candy than heartfelt tale.
Looking beneath the gorgeous exterior reveals a story that is ripe with plot holes, weak character development and erratic pacing. It would appear that the majority of the last ten years has been spent on the visual achievements of the movie rather than the emotional. It's very hard to emote when it comes to an animated project, but Steamboy falls far shorter than other shows and films I have seen and winds up feeling hollow in the end. To be fair the movie starts well and ends well, but everything in between turns to mush with rare bits of sentiment and heart.
The Steamboy story follows the life of a British family named Steam who have proven themselves to be self-made geniuses, inventors and prominent men of science. Three generations find themselves entangled in a conflict of ethics and soon are at odds with each other. The main focus of the tale follows 13 year old Ray Steam (voiced by Anna Paquin) as he gets wrapped up in the mechanical workings of his father Eddy (voiced by Alfred Molina) and grandfather Lloyd (voiced by Patrick Stewart).
A device known as the "steamball" winds up in Ray's hands and everything goes downhill from there for the lad. He finds out that his father has turned to evil and that the heart of most men will eventually turn science into weapons. Grandpa steps in to teach Ray that science and technological advancement should only be used for good and peace. Tossed into the mix is a confusing young girl named Scarlett who's snotty, bratty nature is in conflict with a few moments of sincerity and concern. But confusing character personality shifts are the least of this movies problem as it degenerates into a "stop the big bad machine from destroying the city" cliché. It takes the whole climax that the film was building up and unravels it unsatisfactorily like a loosely threaded tapestry.
Steamboy definitely features some unconventional story telling and a moral message, but getting from start to finish becomes a real drag. When things aren't randomly blowing up you're going to sit through drawn out and sometimes pointless conversations that do nothing for the characters or the plot. Depending on what language you are listening to your experience will definitely change, considering the dialogue is noticeably different.
Not only does the English not match the character's mouths in even the slightest bit, but the conversations are much more prolonged than the Japanese track. Sure it's nice to hear Patrick Stewart, Anna Paquin and Alfred Molina working on the same project, but the original material is so much better in terms of emotional and material quality. If you want a laugh watch the subtitles with the English language running and you'll see what I mean. If you had caught Steamboy in the theater and saw the edited down English version, you owe it to yourself to catch it in Japanese for an arguably better experience considering the DVD features all 126 minutes of the film.
Steamboy is presented with a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and is great looking, though at darker points there is some grain and pixilation that creeps in. Considering the film was in production for so long and was done mostly digitally that's pretty surprising, but it's not enough to mar the movies beauty.
The style is absolutely amazing in Steamboy and Otomo's artistic approach is just as visionary as many of his other projects in the past. There is a strong contrast between the thriving colorful world of humanity and the murky darkness of the metallic abominations the Steams invent.
Both the English and Japanese audio tracks feature 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound and even though the dialogue is different, equal quality runs though this release. Steamboy can be a very loud movie at times and it takes great use of directional sound with its turning gears, escaping steam and voice work from all sides. The disc also features 2.0 mixes for Spanish, Portuguese and French as well as optional subtitles for those languages as well as English. Overall, Steamboy is a quality sounding DVD release though my recommendation is to watch it with the original Japanese track with English subtitles.
Aside from a slew of previews, Steamboy also features a variety of other extras packed onto the disc that are definitely worth taking a look at. On the more artsy side of things there is a feature called Production Drawings, which features paintings from various backgrounds in the film as well as bits of technology and specific scenes. A more interesting feature is the Animation Onion Skins which shows various stages of the animation process in the form of layers. If you're into how movies like this are made, this is a great look at some of what it takes and how certain points in the film were conjured.
The main draw are is the featurettes section which showcases four distinctly different assets that deserve looking into. Re-Voicing Steamboy features interviews with Stewart, Paquin, Molina and other members of the team that brought over the English conversion. They talk about what drew them to this project and what it was like doing the voice work for the movie. There is also an Interview with Katsuhiro Otomo where he discusses how he came up with the idea, his fears about seeing it realized and what it was like seeing it through. Anyone who is a fan of the man's work will appreciate hearing him talk about his creative process and personal thoughts.
Multi-Screen Landscape Study takes a look at various bits of the movie from three different perspectives and compares them to real life locations. There are also some conversations with members of the staff towards the tail end of the feature. The last one is a cleaned up version of the ending montage for the film without the credits. The Adventure Continues showcases still images from the future adventures of Steamboy and shows some of what becomes of Ray and his family.
The Collector's Gift Set includes a few other really cool trinkets that you can't get with the Director's Cut edition. You still get the same disc release with the same special features, but you also get a 166 page sketch book that features character drawings and designs for everything in the film. It's definite high quality and everything is authentic with original Japanese notes scattered throughout. The Gift Set also includes an original Japanese 26 page manga and ten large cards featuring artwork and stills from the movie.
Visionary, breathtaking and awe-inspiring are some words that I would use to describe Steamboy, unfortunately I would also use boring, static and pointless. As much as I wanted to like Steamboy and as much as I admired the scope of the film, it just doesn't go in a worthwhile direction. The whole plot and moral of the movie sees a very thin realization towards the end and it does nothing to suck you in or make you care.
I had a better time watching the Japanese audio track, but in the end the movie is the same. That being said the DVD features some very good visual and audio quality, even though there's some very noticeable grain in darker spots. For an animated feature there are some impressive extras included on this release and are worth a watch if the disc finds it's way into your hands.
Considering the two releases for this movie I'm going to advise two different things. If you're looking to just watch the film and want to check out the Director's Cut edition then you should rent it. However, if you are a collector and hardcore anime fan you will love the bonus materials included with the Collector's Gift Set and considering this is the material that was reviewed I'm going to recommend it.
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