Friday, February 12, 2010

ASTRO BOY - clever but lacking wit

I can't say I'd ever heard of ASTROBOY before watching this film but apparently he is an insanely famous Manga character created by Tezuka Osamu in the 1950s. Apparently the original stories have already inspired a 1960s TV series. In that series, Astroboy started life as the young son of a famous scientist, Dr Tenma. When young Toby is killed in a car accident, Dr Tenma resurrects his memory in a robot, CAPRICA stylee. But tragically, Tenma is revolted by his creation and sells him to a vicious circus-owner called Hamegg (shades of ELEPHANT MAN) whence he is rescued by Tenma's kind-hearted boss, Ochanomizu. Tenma may occasionally help Astroboy, but he never truly accepts him.

In this new film, ASTROBOY has been yanked into our contemporary political tensions. The whole narrative takes place in a world that has been ruined by litter-bug exploitative humans (shades of WALL-E) and the elite of the world have relocated to a shiny Metro City in the clouds. Metro City is being run by a politician who wants to start a war to win an election. Rather than being killed in a car crash, Astroboy is killed when the evil politician tries to put evil red energy into a military robot. His father still rejects him, but in order to make Tenma more palatable to modern audiences, he doesn't actually sell him to the circus owner. Rather, Toby runs away, and ends up with Hamegg by chance. And Hamegg is a more equivocal character - he truly loves robots, but at the end of the day, doesn't think AI makes you worthy of human rights. (A good debate for BSG fans!)

The resulting film is pretty complex for a kids film, and like Miyazaki films, is concerned with environmental degradation and consumption run amok. It also has shades of the best science fiction, making explicit reference to Asimov. The CGI animation is interesting in its design and the voice work is particularly good. I especially liked Freddie Highmore as Astroboy, Nic Cage as Tenma, and a modulated Bill Nighy as the heart-breakingly kind Elefun. But somehow, the diffuse plotting made for a rather plodding film, especially in the middle portion where Astroboy falls to Earth and side-steps into a film that seems to be half Oliver Twist and half Gladiator. I rather missed the wit, charm and old-fashioned simplicity of David Bowers previous directorial effort, FLUSHED AWAY.

ASTRO BOY played London 2009 was released last year in the US, Canada and Asia, It is now on global release.

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