By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
RAFU ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR
When I first became aware of the upcoming “Astro Boy” movie, it just so happens that I’d been at the Little Tokyo Library, checking out a DVD of the old 1960s series that introduced the robot kid to American audiences. While I’ve never been a huge fanatic of Tetsuwan Atomu (Iron-arm Atom) as he’s known in Japan, I am among the millions who instantly recognize the iconic, sweet face of the character that set a new standard for Japanese cartoons that has held all the way through today’s manga and anime.
Obviously, the simplistic stories and crude animation of the early films (there have been updated versions in the 1980s and again in 2003) have nowhere near the sophistication demanded by the current generation, accustomed to video games with ultra-lifelike, computerized versions of Kobe Bryant and Iraq war soldiers. Naturally, the 2009 “Astro Boy,” which opens nationwide Friday, deploys state-of-the-art digital animation to bring the story of the robot with a heart of a lion to a new wave of fans…and this time around, the kid’s fully clothed.
Released by Summit Entertainment and Hong Kong-based Imagi Studios, “Astro Boy” is neither as bad as I expected nor as good as I had hoped. Creator Osamu Tezuka’s original comic book premise is a sound one, a kind of space-age Pinocchio, in which a brilliant robot scientist, bereft with grief over the death of his only son, recreates the boy in mechanical form.
In the new film, Dr. Tenma, voiced by a fairly dispassionate Nicolas Cage, has been working on a giant militaristic droid called the Peacekeeper. He is doing so on the orders of President Stone (Donald Sutherland), who is the elected leader of Metro City, a metropolis in the sky, a chunk of Earth that was carved out of and hovers above the pollution-filled landscape below. Stone’s singleminded plan for reelection (which he seems to mention almost every time he speaks) is to instigate a war with the surface dwellers left below to boost his approval ratings, and the Peacekeeper is key to that plan.
In demonstrating the hulking robot, there’s a mix-up of positive and negative energy modules (I won’t even try to explain) and Tenma’s son, Toby (Freddie Highmore), is summarily vaporized, leaving only his baseball cap (it’s an indestructible hat, I guess.) Apparently crushed by the loss, Toby’s father (where’s his mother, by the way?) devotes all his time and energy to recreating the boy, a process that includes infusing the cyborg with DNA taken from a hair retrieved from the cap.
Once he’s zapped to life, the now robotic Toby is unaware of his new internal workings, but discovers he can perform all kinds of complex mathematical calculations and physical stunts–like flying, in a sequence perhaps fashioned after the moment of discovery experienced by Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man.
What follows is a fairly standardized series of events–the President orders Astro Boy dismantled to preserve his hold on power, the father helps him escape, stuff explodes, and there are plenty of kids –and yes, a dog–to thwart the plans of the evildoing adults.
What “Astro Boy” achieves in spite of its simplified story is a real sense of longing, on the part of characters who feel lost and abandoned. Toby wishes for more attention from his overworked and overly calculating father, and a group of orphaned kids below the floating Metro City pretend they’re fine on their own, yet dream of being reunited with their parents. Played out against the action-packed backdrop, the robotic Astro Boy is endearingly human.
Unfortunately, the action is simply too much for the little ones. At the screening I attended, there were several toddlers in the audience, at least a few of whom were covering their ears and eyes during scenes with frighteningly menacing robots and bombastic battles to the death. The film suffers from a major contradiction, most notably when Astro Boy is thrown into an arena of battle, rather purposely designed to resemble a Christians vs. lions scenario from Ancient Roman times. Astro defiantly announces he refuses to fight any other robots to the death, but is rather easily convinced to do otherwise. He then proceeds to savagely kill scores of other machines. Atomu’s sweetness is nowhere to be found here, no doubt foremost in “Astro Boy” receiving a MPAA rating of PG, rather than G.
Certainly, the filmmakers were saddled with the task of updating a cartoon classic for modern times. Astro Boy is older, wiser and more sophisticated, but at the expense of the cuteness that made him recognizable worldwide. There’s a star-filled cast and adequate one-liners to keep parents involved and older kids will no doubt enjoy this fast-paced ride, but for the sake of the youngest eyes and fragile emotions, keep the little tykes at home.
“Astro Boy,” begins in wide release Friday. 93 minutes. Rated PG for some action and peril, and brief mild language.