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 Four collects episodes 31-40:
31. "The Case of the Phantom Fowl" Trying to prove her own worth as a heroine, Zoran teams with Yuko's nutty uncle Kisagari to crack a supernatural mystery involving a ghost duck. Meanwhile, Astro discovers a scheme to illegally dump toxic waste in hyperspace, which is causing reality itself to warp.
This one's definitely one of the odder episodes of the bunch. There's the limp comic relief of Zoran and the goofy, enjoyable comic relief of Kisagari, blended into a Scooby-Doo adventure (complete with a holographic monster), topped off with some environmental preachiness. Also, there's a baby duck. It's all a frantic jumble that aims for more adorableness than it should.
32. "Gideon" The adorableness continues with a robot dolphin who's grown afraid of a sea legend called the Phantom Pirate, a fear which interferes with his deep sea exploration mission. Can Astro teach him a little something about courage? Short answer: yes. The action is decent, but it's stifled by cutesy-pie characters and repetitive lessons about how you won't overcome fear until you experience courage, which probably sounded good on paper but don't make much sense anywhere else.
33. "Fairy Tale" A screechy, spoiled brat (imagine a four-year-old Veruca Salt, but louder) decides she wants a fictional fairy for her birthday, which leads Astro and his friends to help the brat's robot servant find one. She never stops yelling and bossing around and generally being horrible, and yet Astro and company still want to be her friend, for reasons completely unfathomable.
Things pick up once the awesome Dr. Minimini and his not-as-awesome thoughts-into-holograms machine arrive, but then the brat worms her way back into the story. All she really wants is a friend or three, which she now has, so all is happy. (She's still spoiled rotten, though.) "Whenever kids smile, fairies are born," she tells us, at which point parents across the globe throw up a little in their mouths.
34. "Shape Shifter" Finally, the cutesy-pie stuff gets sidelined, and the series is back on track. A shape-shifting robot from another dimension is hypnotized into a life of crime, stealing a rare lunar mineral for the ace criminal Rock. The story is rich in detail, complete with a backstory involving a secret mission to the moon, communication across the dimensions, and a fugitive hiding from Metro City's scientists. It's continued in...
35. "Firebird" Rock is back, eager for revenge. His plan is to use Astro's techno-brain and the psychic energy of an ancient temple to open a dimensional gateway. It's pretty much non-stop action and mystery - and redemption, as the secrets of Rock's past lead to a possible better future for him. It's a rip-roarin' two-parter that more than makes up for the weaker episodes that kick off the disc.
36. "Space Academy" Oh no, it's a romance episode! Astro and a new friend Anton both fall for the same girl, the top student at the Space Academy. There's a bit of the ol' Cyrano de Bergerac, with Astro feeding Anton poetic lines, but then the story takes a bizarre left turn as Astro enters his own brain in an effort to stop a spaceship from crashing into the moon. As for the girl, she's straight out of the "Sailor Moon" playbook. The episode has its moments, and the idea of Astro discovering deeper emotions works within the overall arc of the series, but overall, the sudden switch to a girls-and-flowers style is noticeably awkward.
37. "Atlas Strikes Back" Spoiler alert: Atlas strikes back. The dangerous human-hater from thirty-three episodes ago finally returns, just as a mad scientist unleashes a robot-mind-control device.
The script tosses us something we haven't seen in several episodes: Astro opts for a peaceful solution (he sneaks into the baddie's lair in hopes of talking to, not beating on, our villain), and only chooses violent action as a last resort. There's also some delicious plotting from Tenma, who coolly barges his way into the story. And while the finale is more or less a rerun of Atlas' last appearance, it's still great stuff.
38. "Battle Bot" A family of robots, developed with true human emotion in order to study how people will handle deep space travel, is attacked by space rangers; the event leads the daughter to anger - and dreams of being transformed into a battle bot by the Blue Knight. Should she get her wish, and if so, will her hatred consume her soul?
There's more tease for the inevitable human-robot conflict, and the action is slick. But the real excitement comes from seeing the Blue Knight's grey morality transferred to the robot girl, whose innocence is lost and found in twenty quick minutes.
39. "Time Hunters" Another throwaway episode. To track down a time traveling poacher, Astro and Zoran get whisked back to prehistory, where they're chased by cheetahs and befriended by a caveman family. While it's a fairly decent time-killer (even with the overdose of Zoran), it's also fairly forgettable.
40. "Escape from Volcano Island" Astro and Epsilon are nominated for the Robot of the Year Award, and someone's planning to wreck the ceremony. What could be just another action episode (complete with disaster movie silliness as a cruise ship nearly crashes into a very active Volcano Island) becomes something quite special when we delve into the villain's past. His hatred for robots is more complex than expected, enriching both the character and the series' themes.
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.