Saturday, April 08, 2006

STEAMBOY - thought-provoking but not entertaining

STEAMBOY is an animated movie from Japan, directed by the man who made the fantastically popular AKIRA. The issues raised are really interesting, especially when you consider that the movie is directed by a man who comes from the only country to have suffered a nuclear attack. And there is added piquance when you conside that the film was issued at a time when the US and UK are at war in Iraq using an unprecendented quantity of mercenaries.

The key issue is the purpose of science. The movie is a kind of James Bond-like action thriller featuring three generations of Mancunian inventers/engineers called the Steams. Grandpa Steam has invented the Victorian England equivalent of nuclear power - a tiny steam ball that contains untold energy. He thinks that the purpose of this scientific breakthrough should be "to make people happy". To that end he steals the SteamBall and sends it to his grandson in England, fearful that the Foundation that has sponsored his work will exploit it. In England, the Steam Ball is intercepted by Robert Stephenson and the British State. The Government's position is the British people cannot be happy unless they are "secure", and that science has a role here too. Moreover, if there is a military use for science, the State should have a monopoly on it. Not only does he want the Foundation to stop selling the technology to enemies of the State, he also does not want the Foundation to amass a private army.

Finally, Papa Steam - the Bond Villain of the piece - simply thinks that the fruits of science should be sold to the highest bidder and market forces - survival of the strongest - will do the rest. His plan is to display the SteamBall at the Great Exhibition at the Alexandra Palace and to sell his steam-powered army to the highest bidder. SteamBoy is caught in the middle of each faction, but eventually saves the City of London from a steam-powered attack. His sidekick, Scarlett O'Hara, scion of the dynasty that runs the Foundation, also makes the journey from naive coquette who simply wants "to win" even when she doesn't know what the game is.

As interesting as this story sounds, STEAMBOY failed to interest me. The evocation of Victorian England is great but there are simply too many long drawn-out action scenes involving British iconic buildings getting bombed. A lot of stuff is plain ridiculous - and despite my high resistance to ridiculousness (I loved KUNG FU HUSTLE for instance) this movie tipped over the line. The fact that the Foundation heiress is named Scarlett O'Hara is just silly for starters, let alone when open warfare breaks out in front of the "Ally Pally". Finally, while Al Molina and Patrick Stewart do a good job in the English-language voice-cast, Anna Paquin CANNOT do a Manchester accent. Still, this is less of a flaw because you could always get hold of the original Japanese language version and use the subtitles.

Overall then, I was a bit disappointed by STEAMBOY. Fans of strange animated stories might want to check out HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE instead.

STEAMBOY was released in Japan in summer 2004 and in the UK in December 2005. It is available on DVD.


  1. Is it suitable for children? I have a nine year old who enjoyed Spirited Away.

  2. Lots of blowing up of stuff but presumably not moreso than conventional kids cartoons.

  3. Have you seen Akira?

  4. @anon. Actually, a friend just gave this to me, so I may review it soon.