Timed to match the arrival of the new "Astro Boy" movie in theaters, Sony has re-released all fifty episodes of the character's 2003 cartoon series in a series of five individual discs. (The studio's previous collection, a complete series five-disc box set released in 2005, remains available.)
As I'm only slightly familiar with the Astro Boy universe, I turn to my daughter, a self-professed fourth grade scholar in all things Astro, her professorial knowledge ranging from Osamu Tezuka's original manga series to the various television adaptations to the recent CG film. I am informed that this 2003 series, produced in association with the Japanese satellite network Animax to celebrate both the fortieth anniversary of the original TV series and the "birthday" of Astro Boy as mentioned in the original manga (it's past 2003 now - where's my flying robot, Tezuka?), changes up a few key elements of the origin story - most notably turning Dr. Tenma into an enigmatic, villainous figure lurking around the edges of the plot - yet overall remains faithful enough to the franchise to avoid disappointment.
Most other changes are generally cosmetic. Astro's robot superpowers have been upgraded to go with the modern times (more weapons!), as has the overall look of the series, which now glows with a zingy anime crackle that's far beyond the simplified animation of the 1963 series - as evident right from the start, with the opening credits' techno swoop and rapid-fire editing.
And while the tone of several episodes is noticeably darker than the optimism of past efforts, the overall mood here is true to Tezuka; commentary on class relations, pacifism, and forgiveness remain strong throughout the series' run.
More controversial to fans is the American re-editing of the show. While dubbing the program into English (the voice work is excellent, by the way), Sony reworked some bits the dialogue, cutting out some of the more child-like comments from Astro while giving him action-oriented catchphrases like "let's rocket!" Incidental music got replaced, including a different theme song. Several shots featuring violence have been removed entirely. And for reasons never quite clear, some names remain Japanese while others are Anglicized; Dr. Ochanomizu, who was rechristened Dr. Elefun in previous cartoons, is now called Dr. O'Shay. (Note: As of this writing, the Japanese versions have never been released Stateside, and the imported discs don't feature English subtitles, making these U.S. versions the only way non-bilingual fans can feed their Astro jones.)
The most bizarre aspect of the American reworking is a shuffling of the order of several episodes. It all seems so random, moving stories around here and there without rhyme or reason, and it results in some awkward continuity in which characters are "introduced" several episodes after we've first seen them.
And yet I will defend the American version, as it maintains most of what makes the franchise work. Many episodes feature no cuts at all, and those that do remain very close to the original. Through it all, the spirit remains. Even with catchphrases added and the darkest bits subtracted, "Astro Boy" is an engaging, imaginative, and delightful slice of sci-fi adventure. It's smart and exciting entertainment for kids and parents alike.
As with the 2005 box set, the episodes here are their American versions, and are presented in the order of their original U.S. broadcast.
Volume Two collects episodes 11-20:
11. "Reviving Jumbo" While on a field trip to Sea World (well, the Metro City equivalent, anyway), Astro discovers Jumbo, who was once the world's biggest robot before getting deactivated and left to rust once new models started rolling out. And then that rascally Skunk breaks out of prison and reactivates Jumbo, who goes on a rampage.
In between the cornball action (as a villain, Skunk is played for laughs, a trait that will be toned down when he returns later in the series), there's more morality stemming from Metro City's bad habit of discarding old robots; this can be interpreted in numerous ways, from an environmental rant to commentary on human interaction. However you read it, it works out in the end to be a sweet tale of old friends reunited.
12. "Robot Hunters" Robots are disappearing from Metro City - stolen by other robots, perhaps? To combat robot-on-robot crime, the police unveil their new "Anti-Robot Robot Squad." Its robot commander wants nothing to do with Astro, however, at least not until both wind up confronting the robot hunters.
The first few scenes have a wonderfully eerie look to them, with baddie robots in tattered cloaks swooping in from the storm. It all leads to some nice action but confusing logic: if a robot is capable of refusing his programming (as happens here in a "be yourself/follow your own path" moral), what's the point of programming in the first place, and why would Astro being program-less be such a big deal?
13. "The Rise of Pluto" Introducing two new robots: Epsilon, who can control the weather, and Pluto, commanded by Dr. Tenma to beat the snot out of everything in sight. (Oh, and Astro now has a sister, but we'll officially meet her in Volume Three.) The story turns into a major case of Battlebots, with some remarkable action bits. And just when you think Astro's kindness has turned Pluto into a better robot, along comes their final battle, which is continued in...
14. "The Fall of Acheron" In his quest to force Astro to evolve as a thinker and a warrior (thus becoming leader of all robots), Tenma has built Shadow, a robot who makes robots (got that?) designed to defeat Astro. What neither villains realized is that Astro is able to teach other robots about emotion and compassion.
That gets pretty much to the heart of the character since his inception. No matter how bogged down the franchise gets in kiddie silliness or sci-fi action, "Astro Boy" will always be about why getting along is better than destroying each other.
15. "Dragon Lake" There's poison in the water at Dragon Lake, but who's causing the pollution? Meanwhile, Astro meets a guy searching for the world's most famous mythical monsters, while a gang of punk gals use monster-bots to destroy the young hero. The action is slick, the monster hunter's side story has a certain sweetness to it, and the environmental message, while far from subtle, is welcome.
16. "Lost in Outland" This one wastes no time getting to the good stuff, and it stays there: the first few minutes are a frenzy of action as Astro races to save the Earth, a task that erases his memory and crashes him in a land of scavengers, misfits, and fugitives. The whole thing zips by at double speed, with new friends and falling satellites and bounty hunters and backstories that should seem rushed but never do. When one character pauses to ask "What just happened?" at story's end, we're right with her, breathless, shaken, and thrilled.
17. "Deep City" It's a case of Astro Boy: Tree Hugger when the mayor abuses a plant growth formula for his own gain. The sight of plants engaging in battle is reminiscent of the Poison Ivy episodes of "Batman," but the script lays it on a bit too thick - yes, even thicker than usual for this moral-heavy series. Characters repeatedly pause to discuss themes of conservation and the balance of nature, and it's just enough to interrupt the flow of the story and cause things to drag. Nice message, though.
18. "The Blue Knight" The leaders of the robot revolution make their first strike - or do they? Whoever's causing the havoc, they've framed poor Astro, causing the government to turn on him. He does have one ally, though: the Blue Knight, a mysterious crusader for robot justice (think cyborg Batman with a Lancelot fixation).
It's standard superhero action, as good as you'd expect, but the real memorable moment comes in the aftermath. The Blue Knight, cynical and angry, questions Astro's faith in a future where humans and robots can be equals. After all, look at all the trouble humans caused in this single adventure. But Astro stands firm on his faith of a better tomorrow, and he's all the nobler for it.
19. "Hydra-Jacked" It's a pinch of Irwin Allen destruction action and a dash of "Star Trek" morality debate: when a couple of thieves set up a space station to self-destruct in order to cover their tracks - putting hundreds of robots in danger - the government opts to ignore the S.O.S., figuring robots aren't "alive" like humans are, and therefore not worth the effort. Fortunately, Astro and the Blue Knight have a different point of view. The episode pushes forward the Blue Knight subplot, but it's the guest characters that give the story its heart.
20. "Geo Raider" You gotta love any cartoon with a sniveling, ascot-wearing explorer named "Dr. Alucard." Astro tags along on a journey to the center of the Earth, and what begins like some second rate "Super Friends" episode turns into something that's both fascinating and kinda creepy, what with all the giant dragonflies ready to carry you away in a blink. Eek? Yes. Very much eek.
Video & Audio
While I don't have the 2005 box set for comparison, these appear to be the same transfers. Colors pop and detail is gorgeous, especially once the animators show off with complicated backgrounds that make you want to pause the image.
The series' intended aspect ratio is a bit of a sticking point here. The show was produced in 1.78:1 widescreen for Japanese television, but cropped down to 1.33:1 when reworked for American screens. It's presented here in 1.33:1, which, technically, is the "official" format for the U.S. version - but knowing there's more image out there is quite a letdown.
While the original Japanese soundtrack remains unavailable (they wouldn't fit the re-edited American cuts anyway), the English dub sounds just fine in Dolby stereo. Dialogue is clear, while effects have a nice depth to them without being overwhelming. It's not a complicated mix, sounding about what you'd expect from a cartoon series. The alternate Spanish and Portuguese stereo dubs also sound just fine. No subtitles are provided.
It's tough to recommend these individual releases, inexpensive as they are, since the earlier box set remains available (and at a lower price then these five volumes combined). For that reason alone, I'll suggest you Rent It to see if this reworking of Astro is to your liking.