In the world of anime there are few icons that stand out, or have as much history as, Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy. After all, Astro has been around since 1952 with a library worth of manga and multiple animated series. In October of last year an animated film was released by Summit Entertainment here in the States, and I dare say that theatrically the movie was a flop by many standards. Poor box office performance doesn't always dictate quality, however. After all, Astro may be iconic in Japan, but in America he's virtually unknown unless you're into anime.
Rather than delve into the complete history of Astro Boy as a character, we'll just focus on the story as it pertains to this film. Basically, everything takes place far into the future near the year 3000 A.D. Humanity has trashed the planet with junk and the scientists in Metro City have decided to rescue themselves from the smog and trash. They put their minds together and figured out a way to lift their city into the atmosphere, leaving the rabble behind.
Metro City seems to be an idyllic place with plenty of clean air and robots to do your bidding. Unfortunately there's corruption in the government and if you tick off the wrong person you're banished to the surface. Stuck somewhere in between is a scientist named Tenma (Nicolas Cage) who is head of the Ministry of Science and works for the militaristic President Stone (Donald Sutherland). It's revealed shortly after the movie begins that a Dr. Elefun (Bill Nighy) has discovered and extracted the core of a comet. This effort resulted in two types of energy cores: Blue and Red. The Blue Core is a symbol of pure energy, while the Red is unstable and somehow the more destructive of the two. With this discovery Stone wants to get his hands on the Cores for a project known as the Peacekeeper, which is basically a giant destructive robot he hopes to unleash on the population below.
During a Peacekeeper demonstration gone wrong Dr. Tenma's boy, Toby, is caught in the crossfire and winds up being vaporized before his very eyes. Distraught and lost, Tenma seeks to use his wits and the power of the Blue Core to recreate his son in a robotic form complete with memories. The result is Astro (Freddie Highmore), though he's not everything Tenma thought he would be. The doctor turns his back on the robot and President Stone tracks him down to recover the Blue Core.
Through a series of events Astro is knocked out of Metro City and winds up on the surface where he poses as a real boy and befriends some other kids. From this point on the film focuses on the exploits of Astro as he tries to find his own identity and carve out a living for himself. He comes to the realization that even though he has Toby's memories, he's not Tenma's son. There's a certain level of maturity there and the self-aware nature as a robot really sets Astro aside from the other machines seen in the film. He doesn't try to become a "real boy" like Pinocchio, but merely accepts who he is and deals with it from there.
The film itself is pretty entertaining and there are plenty of moments that will amuse audiences young and old alike. The film does have a few flaws that are tough to overlook, however. For starters the plot is very predictable with events occurring just as you might expect they would. This severely limits the interaction with viewers and really keeps the confrontations and challenges Astro faces feeling rather dry. The sense of humor brought into the picture is all over the map from the absurd to the mildly funny. The inevitable battle between the hero and Peacekeeper also fails to reach the climax that it should emotionally. Visually it's impressive, but explosions and cool action aren't necessarily all audiences want to see.
Another aspect to Astro Boy that was disappointing was the voice acting. Some performances here are quite solid with Highmore's Astro being the most notable. Kristen Bell is endearing as Cora and Sutherland seems to have a good time playing Stone, though he often sounds bored and as if he's forcing lines. Unfortunately Cage's wooden acting skills really detract from Tenma's character and this removes the viewer from some key emotional scenes. I mean, Tenma's son was killed right before his eyes and Cage's lines come across as though he was reading a newspaper article about a quilting convention. Thankfully his character wasn't the be-all and end-all of this film, but it definitely set the tone for the rest of the cast.
Ultimately Astro Boy is an entertaining film, but it doesn't stand out quite enough. The visuals are great (kudos to Imagi Studios), the action is exciting, and there's a variety of humor here, but it just winds up feeling flat. The script is too predictable, the acting isn't as energetic or emotional as it should have been, Astro feels too much like he's trying to fit in rather than stand out, and overall the film just seems a little underwhelming somehow. Astro fans should consider the film worth watching once, though the best I can muster for Astro Boy is the recommendation of a rental.
Astro Boy is presented on DVD with its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and has been enhanced for anamorphic playback. Like many other CGI films this one looks particularly sharp and vibrant from top to bottom. Coming straight from the source material Astro Boy is free of flaws such as grain and there's no aliasing of any kind. Some artifacting was present in a couple of scenes, but these elements were very minor. All around this is a solid transfer for the film and one very nice looking DVD.
English Dolby Digital 5.1 (and Spanish 5.1 for interested parties) is included here. The soundtrack is booming with a great presence on the soundstage. The bass is used liberally and effects utilize the front and rear channels intelligently to create a decent sense of immersion. Some ambient effects are a little too subtle though, and in the end the squeaky clean production left something out of the atmosphere. Dialogue is front-centric and not incredibly diverse. English and Spanish subtitles are included.
A decent supply of bonus features makes their way onto this DVD release for Astro Boy. Most of these are aimed towards the children in the audience, but some meatier features are present as well.
"Inside the Recording Booth" (10:16) is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. This feature sits the voiceover cast down in front of a camera for interviews where they talk about what it was like to work on the film. "Designing a Hero" (10:37) has some of the artists and animators talking about the creation of the character and the design of the film from pencil to computer production. Similarly, "Building Metro City" (7:29) looked at the creative process and design for the film's main hub. "Astro Boy Image Gallery: Creating a Global Icon" (4:55) is a reel of images from Tezuka's original drawings to the style seen in the movie. "Getting the Astro Boy Look" is a (lame) short clip of some fans getting their hair styled like Astro Boy.
A couple animated shorts are included on this disc as well. "Astro vs. the Junkyard Pirates" (3:26) features Astro and his friends rummaging for robotic garbage in the junkyard. They're attacked by a pair of trash pirates and it's up to Astro to defeat them and save the day. "The RRF In: The New Recruit" (1:07) is a clip that has the RRF trying to recruit Zog.
Astro Boy was fun for what it was, but in all fairness it's a spotty effort. Some parts of this film (the action) were pure genius, while others (the script) simply failed on all accounts. The end result is a picture that's worth renting for interested parties, but it's a title that will be lost on everyone else. Perhaps that's why the film didn't do so hot at the box offices? Whatever the case only fans of Astro Boy need apply. Rent it