An enjoyable new anime from "Akira" director Katsuhiro Ôtomo, "Steamboy" is set in London in the 1800's, and focuses on young inventor Ray Steam (voiced on the US edition, oddly enough, by Anna Paquin.) One day, he gets a package in the mail from grandfather Lord Steam (Patrick Stewart) that contains a "steam ball", an invention that could be very dangerous or could be an incredible source of steam-powered energy. When it's revealed that his father, Edward (voiced by Alfred Molina in the US version), has turned evil and is planning to use a steam-powered castle in order to destroy the London Exposition, it's up to Ray to stop him and protect the steam ball from the O'Hara Corporation. The spoiled daughter of the head of the corporation, Scarlett (get it?) just might be the ally that Ray needs in his quest.
The film isn't heavy on plot, but it does provide some remarkable visuals, as the film's action/adventure second half throws the viewer through a remarkably detailed animated recreation of 1800's industrial revolution London. Some shots looking over the city towards the horizon had me stopping the film just to appreciate the artistry involved. Despite the fact that there are some instances where CGI is involved, it does integrate smoothly with the traditional animation on display. Reportedly the most expensive animated feature ever made outside the US, the money is certainly visible on-screen, as the amount of detail visible in the animation continually impressed me.
The film isn't as remarkable in terms of story as Otomo's legendary "Akira", but I still managed to enjoy "Steamboy", flaws and all. The action sequences are nicely crafted, and despite some heavy-handed lessons about science and mankind, the ideas behind the story are still appreciated. However, while the story is generally interesting and involving, some of the characters are not. Scarlett would certainly be the worst creation in the film, as her character is consistently irritating. Some of the other characters are not as well-developed as they could have been, but the actors save them. The best example is Patrick Stewart, who gives rather one-note speeches an incredible amount of emotion, intensity and gravity. Molina and Paquin also do fine work, and Paquin generally does a pretty decent job doing a male voice.
Overall, "Steamboy" doesn't reach the heights of "Akira" or some other recent anime works, but it still does provide a moderately exciting (a couple minutes of trims here-and-there could have helped tighten the pace a bit; the US version was cut when it went to theaters by 20 minutes, but it's not included here, so there's no way to compare) action/adventure, with some attempts at thought-provoking ideas behind all the activity.
VIDEO: "Steamboy" is presented by Sony Pictures Home Video in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the presentation really neeed to be solid in order to fully appreciate and do justice to the remarkable animation in the film. Thankfully, with few exceptions, the presentation is quite good. Sharpness and detail are mostly first-rate, as darker scenes that could have appeared murky appear crisp and detailed. The movie as a whole looks consistently well-defined, with no noticable softness.
The presentation did show some very light edge enhancement and a couple of traces of pixelation, but overall, the transfer appeared very smooth, crisp and clear. The film's color palette is generally quite subdued, with a heavy sepia tone. Colors appeared accurately presented, with no smearing or other faults.
SOUND: "Steamboy" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 (in English w/subtitles or Japanese). Surrounds kick in several times throughout the film to deliver sound effects and ambience, making for an immersive and enjoyable experience. Both the Japanese and US audio tracks offered excellent audio quality, with a dynamic-sounding score and well-recorded effects and dialogue.
EXTRAS: The first featurette takes a look at the actors who provided the voices for the US version. It's an enjoyable, if basic piece, which provides some enjoyable insights from the actors involved as to how they felt about the project and their thoughts on this particular style of animation. The American director also discusses his thoughts on casting the voices, trying to at least go for voices that were appropriate for the characters.
Also included is an interview with director Katushiro Otomo, "animation onion skins, which look at scenes in different stages of completion, "The Adventure Continues" (end credits w/o text); "Multi-Screen Landscape Study" is a split-screen look at production drawings, crew meetings/intervews and other elements; we also get a montage of production drawings and trailers for other studio efforts, such as "Final Fantasy VII" and "The Cave".
The gift set also includes a very nice 166-page booklet full of production sketches, concept designs and storyboards, as well as postcards and a 22-page manga comic book.
Final Thoughts: Although not without some issues, such as some underdeveloped aspects of the story and characters, I still enjoyed "Steamboy" as a lively sci-fi action/adventure. Columbia/Tristar's DVD edition offers very good audio/video quality, along with a nice helping of supplements. Fans who are interested in the animation will certainly enjoy the book that comes with the gift set, while the regular edition will certainly casual fans and others.