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 Three collects episodes 21-30:
21. "Secret of the Blue Knight" When the Blue Knight experiences a hidden memory, he begins to understand his mysterious past - something to do with gladiators, a sniveling ringmaster, a quest for freedom, and the robot-maker Shadow. (He is Spartacus!) The memories return him to Mars, a frontier that's become something of a new wild west.
In other cartoons (heck, in lesser "Astro Boy" episodes), the "space western" setting would be enough to define the entire story, but here, it's wisely restrained, acting merely as a clever backdrop to more character-driven developments. The Blue Knight's story arc is becoming more riveting that Astro's; there's little doubt our hero will remain pure of heart despite Tenma's frequent temptations, while the Blue Knight showcases a more fascinating range of inner conflict. (However, Astro's steadfast decency shouldn't be read as weak dramatics - he's there as the counterpoint and the role model.)
22. "Robot Circus" Those lesser "Astro Boy" episodes I mentioned above? This is one of them. Astro visits a robot circus and discovers an orphan boy living in disguise as a robot. When the secret gets out, the authorities assume the youngster was kidnapped by his circus friends. It's a decent enough story, dealing with the series' themes of bigotry and acceptance, but it's shoehorned into a "hey, let's make circus characters, but with robots!" gimmick that's a little too thin. Fortunately, the writers infuse enough heart to keep things moving well enough through the weaker moments.
23. "Little Sister, Big Trouble" We already met her back in Volume Two (thanks to that aforementioned episode reshuffling), and now we get the origin story. Zoran (rhymes with "moron") is Astro's impish "little sister," built by Dr. O'Shay in his quest to make more robots with kokoro. She comes complete with a squeaky voice, a grating attitude, and a pet bird named Houdini, and anyone with memories of Scrappy-Doo or Cousin Oliver will understand why this whole idea isn't among the series' best. The cutesy pie comedy smothers the serious action (something about the attack of a giant robot pterodactyl).
24. "Micro Adventure" It's more Zoran cutesiness, what with all the mess-making and sibling-arguing and squeaky-talking. Then a bad guy slips a micro-robot into Zoran's system, threatening her power grid, so a micro-copy of Astro (don't ask) must do the Fantastic Voyage thing to rescue her. It's a strange reworking of an old story: rather than thrill to the notion of teeny internal bits blown up to large scale, we're left instead looking at unfamiliar robot parts made big, but it just looks like another Astro-in-a-strange-world yarn. (There are some neat inventions here, but seeing the inside of Zoran's robot memory center just doesn't match the thrill of seeing the inside of a human brain.)
On the other hand, I'm amused by the thought of an expert in micro-technology being named "Dr. Mini-mini."
25. "Only a Machine" With the Zoran introductions out of the way, we can get back to the good stuff. The anti-robot movement heats up when a protest leader gets his hands on a robot-brain-scrambling machine. What he didn't know is that he's being played as a pawn by Skunk, who's out to steal all that intelligence for his own gain.
It all leads Astro to take another trip within, and this time it's everything "Micro Adventure" wasn't. The wonderful visuals are inspired indeed, a sort of hi-tech trippy, just the sort of adventure needed to flesh out the familiar "racist learns his lesson" theme.
26. "Robot Boy" The son of a famous test pilot is an incurable daydreamer with a robot obsession, and when he sneaks aboard mom's latest rocket just as it's about to explode, um, he doesn't land in any trouble or danger whatsoever. The episode lays it on thick with the yay! imagination! theme so much that it celebrates the kid's bad choices in fear of punishing his good ones. The action itself is a bit thin, whittled down to make room for even more theme-repeating. It's a good point stretched beyond its welcome.
27. "Dawn of the Techno Revolution" Oh no! It's a clip show! In order to fill the gap created when Sony felt the episode "Eternal Boy" could not be imported along with the rest of the series (internet scuttlebutt suggests a copyright issue with which the studio didn't want to bother), this assortment of past adventure highlights was pasted together. Re-dubbed bridging material features Tenma and Shadow discussing Astro's evolution as a thinking, caring robot. It's a mid-series way of reinforcing themes and story arcs that might've lost in the syndication shuffle, and it's totally boring and completely worth ignoring.
In an embarrassing slip, this episode contains a clip from the M.I.A. story "Eternal Boy" - it's essentially a flashback to something that never happened. Oh, and a couple flashbacks are actually flash-forwards to episodes that would premiere later in the series' run. Whoops.
28. "The Legend of Tohron" Astro and his human pals protect a young princess when a ruthless villain threatens to take over the throne. The characters are charming and the action is brisk, but the whole thing feels more cartoonish than usual (including animation that's much simpler than we've come to expect). This is one of those episodes that comes off like a generic kiddie show. Well-made and entertaining enough, sure, but still generic.
29. "March of the Micro Bears" It's the Teddy Ruxpin invasion! Shadow has built an army of robot teddy bears capable of hypnotizing their owners into hating Astro. And then there's a giant robot bear (MechaTeddy?) that's come to lay the smack down. The script aims for creepiness with "Freaks"-esque scenes of a bear army chanting in unison "one of us, one of us," but the teddies are too cute to really be a threat. Worse, the whole thing hinges on a subplot in which Astro gets into a fight with a friend until they both learn lessons about cheating and forgiveness and such, and it all feels like a Very Special Episode. Also: MechaTeddy. Seriously?
30. "Old Dog, New Tricks" Astro teams up with Yuko's nutty uncle, a gruff private eye who doesn't care much for partners - especially robots. They're on the trail of Skunk, who's been teasing the cops with Riddler-esque dares. It's a lightweight but fun episode, buoyed by the charm of the uncle's goofiness. The real interest is seeing how the animators combine the old school cartoon look of the characters with the sleek CGI of "Magnabot," a shape-shifting robot monster made of millions of magnetic cubes.
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.