Apart from the ability to point at a picture of Astro Boy and yell “That’s Astro Boy!” I know nothing about Astro Boy. But was this an animated series with a darker bent? Color me surprised when Dr. Tenma’s science whiz kid Toby (Freddie Highmore) bites it in a military weapons test gone awry — and doesn’t come back. Instead, Tenma (Nicolas Cage) constructs a life-like robot replica of his deceased son and enlivens him with powerful Blue Matter energy. I think that one’s way down on the Periodic Table. It’s a ballsy way to start your movie, and at that point I believed this whimsical cartoon boy was definitely not for kids.
Astro Boy looks gorgeous, with lush blues and idyllic cloudscapes, and all of which would look even better if a shirtless juvenile wearing colored underoos weren’t zipping in and out of cumulonimbuses — or cumulonimbi? Astro Boy also sports some of the better gags and humor this side of a non-PIXAR release, and like the opening dourness, they have a morbid tint. “I have machine guns in my butt” should be a terrible line, but it works thanks to Freddie Highmore’s delivery and dodgy American affectation. Of course, minor writing highs are brief respites from obvious character arcs. Kristen Bell’s orphaned tomboy will surely reunite with her above world parents just as Cage’s Tenma will surely repent and reunite with his outcast robo-son. The latter resolution is bafflingly hasty, inducing further groans with a character’s sighing proclamation that “Astro brought us all back together.” Astro Boy’s rich and populated universe, with its gladiatorial underground and the Robot Revolutionary Front, flourishes in spite of the boring people who fill it. Tough to imagine the original 60’s Japanimation series being this flat.
Cage’s voice work is an afterthought, lending further curiosity to his getting final billing in the opening credits over acting heavyweights like Donald Sutherland and Bill Nighy. Even though Tenma’s inexplicable and erratic development makes for one of Astro Boy’s more frustrating figures, Cage sounds tired and bored, and his readings are cold and unaffected. If you ever took turns reading Romeo and Juliet out loud as a class, you know of what I speak. By comparison, Sutherland’s President Stone is a delightful warhawk caricature, so hell bent on his reelection that when he merges with the film’s rampaging osmosis bot, he can’t help but mumble that a successful military campaign might boost approval ratings.
Director and Dreamworks Animation lifer David Bowers has a knack for visuals, constructing stunningly composed shots and majestic action effects. Someone should’ve smashed laptop though, because dramatic scribe he is not. This is a mashup of Pinocchio; A.I.; Iron Giant; I, Robot and even origins of RoboCop — a recycled scrap heap borrowing from predecessors and one that does nothing new; it just brags about its influences well, provided nobody opens their mouths. Astro Boy’s flat story and stock characters feel like they’re ruining a very complete, very pretty thing, like scrawling Crayola stick figures onto “Starry Night.” Damn shame if you were to ask the guy with a fleeting familiarity with the character.
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