(by Dustin Putman
"Astro Boy" originally began life as a Japanese manga by Osamu Tezuka in 1952, and then grew all the more popular with a television series in 1963. Whereas he is viewed in Japan with a similar idolatry as the U.S. has afforded Mickey Mouse throughout the years, it is doubtful that many Americans even know who "Astro Boy" is. If his first American-made animated feature is any indication, the boy robot would have been better off remaining in obscurity. After all of the controversy over whether or not the recent "Where the Wild Things Are" is appropriate for young kids, it turns out that it is "Astro Boy" that is unsuitable for the young viewers it is selling itself to. If 2001's visionary "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" were stripped of its thoughtfulness, it would look a lot like this morbidly insensitive insult. Article continues below
With rising technology and increased consumption turning the world into a virtual landfill, an island in the sky known as Metro City has risen above the muck. It is here that state-of-the-art robots cater to humans, doing all the dirty work people no longer want to do. When science whiz-kid Toby (voiced by Freddie Highmore) tags along with father Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage) to his job at the Ministry of Science, his curious nature gets him trapped in an experiment chamber where conflicting blue and red core energy collide. Toby is promptly destroyed, blown to smithereens, and a grief-stricken Dr. Tenma, ill-prepared to lose his only child, decides to replace him with a robotic replica implanted with all of Toby's memories. He may look like Toby on the outside, but he's not Toby—a fact that leads Dr. Tenma to bitterly reject him. Astro, as the mechanical child is nicknamed, is hurt and confused, and then discovers the truth about himself. Along with being a robot, though, he also discovers he has superpowers—a fact that he at first keeps close to the vest when he falls from Metro City and joins up with a group of scrappy Dickensian orphans and their obnoxious makeshift father figure Ham Egg (Nathan Lane).
"Astro Boy" has a lot wrong with it on just about every level, from the aesthetic to the thematic to the creative. The computer animation looks faded, a cross between something that has sat out in the sun too long and one of those post-apocalyptic expressionist films of the 1920s like Fritz Lang's "Metropolis." Were writer-director David Bowers (2006's "Flushed Away") going for dank and morose, he certainly would have achieved that with the visuals. The trouble is that too much of the picture is treated like a lightweight lark, which does not fit for a second with a story about the death of a child, a father's grief, and the snarky, right-wing manipulation of a president (Donald Sutherland) seeking reelection. Political propaganda has no place in a loopy kid's flick.
Even more dire is the offensive treatment of a plot that doesn't seem to realize how macabre it truly is. Bowers and co-writer Timothy Harris are negligible in their handling of what it might really be like if a man were to bring his son back in robotic form. Toby is so precocious at the onset that it is greatly sobering to watch him get killed off, his father bawling as he holds onto his son's hat (the only thing that physically remains of him). That the viewer is supposed to rally behind Astro, then, is a tough pill to swallow, and more than a little creepy. The exceedingly similar "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" tackled this premise wonderfully, portraying the robot boy's gradual journey from machine to someone who had evolved into having genuine feelings and emotions. By comparison, Astro does not really change at all throughout, Toby's memories programmed into him. Sure, he turns to fighting evil forces when he discovers his superpowers, but the fact remains that Astro does not have an all-important soul to make him whole. When his father, Dr. Tenma, abruptly turns around at the end and tells Astro, "You might not be Toby, but you're still my son," the statement is (1) utterly senseless and (2) a flimsy excuse to give the proceedings a sloppy, superficial happy ending.
If the tone matched the animation, "Astro Boy" would hold a moody, cool aura to it. If an actual brain had been included to tackle the moral dilemmas and ethical conflicts of the piece, then the film might have more effectively targeted an older audience. Without either, the enterprise collapses in its own irresponsible cowardice, tossing away heady ideas for lots of mindless action, unfunny one-liners, and too-easy resolutions. In the voice department, Freddie Highmore (2008's "The Spiderwick Chronicles") goes in and out of his British accent as Toby/Astro; Kristen Bell (2009's "Couples Retreat") gets stuck with a forgettable character as Cora, an orphan Astro befriends; Nicolas Cage (2009's "Knowing") struggles mightily and comes off slow-speeched and unconvincing as Dr. Tenma; and Eugene Levy (2009's "Taking Woodstock") outshines them all as Dr. Tenma's put-upon robot servant Orrin. A low-energy downer, "Astro Boy" will perplex younger audiences while talking down to those old enough to understand the provocative implications director David Bower starts to set up before carelessly abandoning them outright.