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Appealing Aesthetics and Emotional Depth Propel Astro Boy

  • Christa Banister Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2009 10 Oct
  • COMMENTS
Appealing Aesthetics and Emotional Depth Propel <i>Astro Boy</i>

DVD Release Date:  March 16, 2010
Theatrical Release Date:  October 23, 2009
Rating:  PG (for some action and peril and brief mild language)
Genre:  Kids/Family, Animation, Comedy
Run Time:  94 min.
Director:  David Bowers
Voices by:  Kristen Bell, Nicolas Cage, Samuel L. Jackson, Charlize Theron, Bill Nighy, Freddie Highmore, Donald Sutherland, Eugene Levy, Nathan Lane, Matt Lucas

After suffering through two-and-a-half hours of overblown robots-in-disguise hijinks in the rather emotionless Transformers sequel this past summer, I can't say that I was exactly chomping at the bit to see yet another movie with a robotic protagonist.

But as I started reading up on Astro Boy, the character's backstory was actually pretty intriguing. Apparently, the whole mystique of Astro Boy, a story that began in cartoon form on Japanese television from 1963 to 1966, managed to escape my pop culture radar somehow. Turns out, he first appeared in Japanese manga in 1951, but yet even 58 years later, his story still feels relevant today.

In fact, for diehard fans of Japanese anime, (a few rather outspoken enthusiasts were in the crowd during my particular screening), Astro Boy's arrival on the big screen was anticipated with equal measures of excitement and trepidation, sort of like a Trekkie's response to J.J. AbramsStar Trek reboot this past summer.

Before I could beat myself up too much for not exactly being "in the know," I learned from a fellow audience member that the whole Astro Boy phenomenon was never as big in America as it was in Japan (or even other international locales) anyway, which made me feel better.

Despite the upgrade in aesthetics from the far kitschier approach used in the cartoons, the Astro Boy faithful seemed pretty happy with the final result. Many even vowed to see it again. And as someone outside the fanboy contingency, I'm happy to report that there's plenty for the unacquainted to enjoy, too.

While still a notch down from Pixar standards (and let's face it, those are pretty high standards to compete with anyway), Astro Boy is still lovingly rendered and far more engaging than anything in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. See, the screenwriters actually bothered with writing a compelling story to accompany the  thrilling action sequences, something that director Michael Bay and Co. might note when crafting the upcoming third installment.

Providing a sufficient backstory for Astro Boy definitely helps matters, too.  Raised by a renowned robotic scientist Dr. Tenma (voiced by Nicolas Cage) in Metro City, a futuristic utopia of sorts where robots take care of everything that humans don't have time for (like cleaning, cooking, etc.), Astro Boy starts off as just a regular 13-year-old named Toby (Freddie Highmore). Curious, a little bored in school and as gifted in science as his dad, he takes any opportunity possible to be close to him, even when he's supposed to stay at home.    

Coincidentally, that little detail ends up playing a big part in what happens next when Toby decides he has to see the scientific breakthrough his dad is about to make. When President Stone (Donald Sutherland) decides to alter the experiment a little for his own professional gain, Toby gets caught in the crosshairs and dies unexpectedly, much to the chagrin of Dr. Tenma, who knows he hasn't always been the best father.

Saddened by his loss to the point of wanting to give up science altogether, Dr. Tenma opts for what he feels is the next best thing—creating a "perfect" version of Toby complete with all of his physical traits, mannerisms and memories. Even though he builds a pretty good replica of his son, however, it's still not "him," so in his pain, Dr. Tenma eventually disowns the copycat and basically relegates him to the robot junk pile below Metro City.

Despite his robotic makeup and new superpowers that propel him to the heavens in mere seconds, Toby, who is later christened Astro Boy, still has the emotional capacity of a human. Feeling dejected and betrayed by the man who used to love him so, Toby starts making friends with the fellow robots (some more functional than others) before ultimately discovering a new family structure that makes for some of the movie's most memorable moments.

As the story progresses, there is a certain "been there done that" quality to it, one that's reminiscent of everything from Wall·E, to A.I. and even occasionally, a classic tale like Oliver Twist. But since this is a story aimed at kids, that's forgivable when it's as enjoyable to watch as Astro Boy is.

And unlike far flashier computer-generated stories, there's a surprisingly human element woven in with all the science. Not only does Astro Boy make many self-sacrificing choices for the well-being of others, but his underlying desire to connect—and be a part of a family—is something that virtually anyone can relate to.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  None.
  • Language/Profanity:  No actual profanity, just a few instances of juvenile humor moments where the word "butt" is used.
  • Sex/Nudity:  None.
  • Violence:  A child dies, but he's shown disappearing into a flash of light when it happens; nothing too scary. There are a few action scenes that have more of a cartoonish level of violence. It's basically not any more graphic than your average Saturday morning cartoon.
  • Thematic Material:  With Astro Boy, there's definitely fodder for discussion with parents and their younger children. Not only does a father have a difficult time dealing with the death of his child, but he recreates his son in robot form (complete with his son's memories) to ease the pain, only to reject him later. Once Toby (in robot form) wakes up in a junk pile, he feels as rejected as the rest of discarded robot parts surrounding him. 

Christa Banister is a full-time freelancer writer, specializing in music, movies and books-related reviews and interviews and is the author of two novels, Around the World in 80 Dates and Blessed Are the Meddlers. Based in St. Paul, Minn., she also weighs in on various aspects of pop culture on her personal blog

For more information, including her upcoming book signings and sample chapters of her novels, check out her Website.