Astro Boy  (2009)PG

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This film illustrates how easy it is to have all the right ingredients, and still have a weak movie that nobody cares about... because this is one that uses all the standard Hollywood elements that go into a hundred other dull failures, and gets it right, so everything works as it should. Other filmmakers who try and fail can often say that they included everything that this includes. So you can’t blame the ingredients.

What we have here is a big-budget computer-animated feature length epic version of the classic old Japanese anime TV series, which in its day was a seminal work: it set the style and tone that Japanese animation has followed ever since, though Osamu Tezuka’s original drawings were, in many ways, childishly silly. It was the story of a little boy who is also a super-powered robot with rockets for feet. The goofy original version hardly seems suited to an epic treatment, but if there’s one thing the pop culture of 2000-2010 is going to be remembered for, it’s the trend of turning the small and silly into the big and serious (a trend that comic book movies have played a major role in... and may have been first prefigured in the comic book medium itself).

This movie wasn’t a hit, but in the audience it did reach, it’s developed some really devoted fans. It’s kind of a standard superhero story, and it’s a kids’ movie, and it’s based on a proven venerable low-risk property, and it never really strays outside the standard parameters of how a modern Hollywood production is supposed to put those factors together. So how is it that the end result stands out so much from the pack? What makes this such a jewel — or at least semi-precious stone — among kids’ adventure movies?

I think the answer, in one word, is that this film has heart.

Now, when it comes to kid movies, Hollywood is very good at believing that this is something it can fake. A bit of cheap forced sentiment, with a simplistic moral lesson on the side, can seem fresh and meaningful to a young-un who doesn’t know the clichés, and can nudge the parents enough so they’ll at least tolerate the film. So pseudo-sentiment is a commonplace mass-produced commodity in such films, and since it suffices perfectly well as far as is needed to maintain steady sales, it’s rare to see anything more.

I think what really makes the difference here is that they’ve managed to make Astro Boy into a well-rounded human character, even though he’s not human. Well, mentally he is. A boy named Toby is killed in an accident, but his father tries copying the kid’s memories into a new robot body. So he naturally thinks of himself as human. Realizing that he’s not himself anymore comes hard. Finding that he’s not human anymore to his own father is even harder. Making him into a three-dimensional character is not so easy given that in the old Japanese cartoons, the kid really doesn’t have any distinct personality at all. In the old version, he didn’t contain a live kid’s memories, but was only made to resemble a live kid superficially.

This is, of course, somewhat counterbalanced by discovering how incredibly powerful his new body is, being based on an apparently unlimited energy source. To the film’s villains, this source is the McGuffin — they want it in the right hands, which means Astro has to give it up... though that would kill him.

The CGI animation is fancy and detailed in its settings and backgrounds, so as to provide lots of big visuals to ooh and aah at, but the living characters are quite stylized and cartoonish, even more than in The Incredibles. They have to be, to have any recognizable resemblance to the original Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu) of fifty years ago.

In the old version, the adventures were pretty darn silly. Most of the characters were played, and drawn, mainly for laugh value. When dubbed into English, many of them were given goofy names, like “Dr. Elefun” (for a guy with a big nose) and “Hammond Eggs”. (In the eighties version of the cartoon, the dubbers used dull names like “O’Shay” and “Boynton”.) This feature version uses a weird mix of names: of the two roboticists who create and mentor Astro, one retains his Japanese name, “Tenma”, and the other uses the goofy sixties name, “Elefun”. And one of the characters who makes life hard for Astro is named “Hamegg”, but the main villain has the bland name of “President Stone”. (Republican viewers may be annoyed by noticeable similarities to a certain other President with a common one-syllable name.)

They also retained the silly physical appearance of many of the characters — Elefun’s improbable nose, Tenma’s rooster-like profile, and most distinctively, the asymmetric conical points of Astro’s hair. (They try to explain it away as “gel”, but it’s still impossible to imagine on a human being.) They also keep some of the sillier features of Astro’s robot body, such as the butt guns, but they balance it out by showing Astro’s genuine astonishment at discovering such a WTF thing in his own body.

This brings up the comedy aspect. All this silly stuff isn’t going to fly unless you’ve got a good supply of jokes, and the film does a very good job of integrating humor. Some of the action scenes have plenty of silliness in them. In particular, the “robot games” fight scenes are excellent at merging exciting action, serious moral tension, and laughs into a single set-piece. The big showdown at the end also has a good supply of humor on the side. The film nearly qualifies as an action-comedy instead of as an action-adventure, but they always keep the overall balance at least 51% on the serious side, so that the drama means something.

So how did a film like this manage to get made? Part of the answer must be that it’s not really a Hollywood project: though the voice acting is largely American, including stalwarts like Donald Sutherland and Nic Cage (!), the animation studio is in Hong Kong, and the director (David Bowers) is British. The script, by Bowers and Timothy Harris, seems perfectly American (and the guy who voices Toby/Astro, Freddie Highmore, uses an American accent though he is British), but it doesn’t seem Hollywood.

As depicted in this film, and as voiced by Highmore, Astro is not all that young a boy — maybe verging on adolescence. In the Japanese version, Astro is distinctly younger. I’ve often wished that the superhero genre would pay more attention to super-characters who aren’t heroic he-men, and particularly to what happens if you give super powers to a kid. Print comic books have made some effort to address this, but film and TV have mostly avoided going there. This is the best treatment of the situation that we’ve currently got in movie form.

I don’t want to oversell this movie... as I said in the beginning, it’s broadly still pretty much a standard action/adventure movie for kids, with no surprising departures from what you’d expect in such a film. It’s just unusually excellent within that category.