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"Steamboy": Fantastic Journey to Yesterday's Tomorrow

Ray rockets to the rescueThese days we take it for granted that major anime features will get a nationwide theatrical run in the U.S. This was not the case in 1989, when renowned manga artist/writer Otomo Katsuhiro’s cyberpunk classic Akira took the art house circuit by storm. Nearly twenty years later, he has finally returned to the director’s chair for his second animated feature, Steamboy, and it’s another rousing adventure brimming with imagination.

Recalling such retro Hollywood projects as The Rocketeer and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the film unfolds in what Otomo calls the “Retro Future” of London, chronicling the adventures of a boy inventor in a late 19th century world full of steam-driven technology that is ahead of its time in other ways. Absent are Otomo’s usual crazy sci-fi conundrums and eclectic Japanese musical score, replaced by a straightforward serial adventure and a very Hollywood dramatic action score. That’s not to say there’s no depth to the story, which explores the ever-popular theme of man’s tenuous coexistence with technology. But it is in the thrilling action sequences and astounding visuals that Steamboy really makes its case.

Ray Steam longs to be a successful inventor like his father Eddie and grandfather Lloyd, who are hard at work on a secret project in Alaska while Ray lives with his mother in Manchester, England. One day a package containing a mysterious ball-shaped device arrives from Lloyd. Immediately, agents of the O’Hara Foundation, the elder Steam’s American sponsor, show up and try to claim the ball, and after a frantic chase between their steam tractor and Ray’s self-built steam unicycle they spirit him and the ball away. At the riverside O’Hara pavilion in London, Ray, to his great surprise, encounters his father, who, thanks to a tragic accident, has become partly mechanical in both person and character. Eddie shows him the mighty Steam Tower, which is capable of efficiently satisfying society’s energy needs beyond all imagination—it is this that the ball powers. He bids Ray help him finish the project, but Ray is concerned about Lloyd’s opposition, which Eddie explains has resulted from a difference of opinion over the application of scientific breakthroughs. For O’Hara has also used the technology to build numerous cutting edge war machines, which they cunningly plan to field test for military buyers at the nearby international technology exhibition. Ray must quickly decide where his true loyalty lies if he is to save London from disaster.

Ray's hellish commuteAlthough the core theme of man vs. machine is anything but new, the way in which the debate over the subject divides one family of inventors gives it a fresh and very personal twist. Lloyd believes that humanity is not ready for the potentially dangerous implications of the technology they have created and is contemptuous of its commercial exploitation. Eddie is convinced people will adapt to their changing environment and that science is to be used to elevate the masses. Ray is able to see both sides and finds himself caught between them. Beneath all of them, the American characters are depicted primarily as money-grubbing warmongers.

Steamboy focuses more on plot than characters, but the cast is still fairly engaging. The idealistic Ray is a more empowering figure for young audiences than the characters in Spy Kids, for not only does he defeat villainous adults, he does so with his own ingenious inventions. Lloyd spends most of his time as a grim doomsayer, pausing only for a few moments of wacky comic relief. Eddie seems loosely modeled on Darth Vader: he has become part machine, fallen under the sway of an evil organization, is declared prematurely dead, and asks his son to join him. Left unexplored is why Eddie has become so emotionally distant, and why Lloyd shows no remorse for causing the accident that disfigured his son. Young O’Hara heiress Scarlett [!] begins as the familiar snotty rich kid, but we would expect as she begins to warm to Ray she would do a 180 and renounce her mistaken ways. She does soften a little, but the film boldly sidesteps this cliché by having her stick to her politically incorrect guns. In step with its fabulous production values, Steamboy boasts a distinguished English dub cast: Anna Paquin plays Ray, Alfred Molina plays Eddie, and Patrick Stewart is Lloyd. The latter two are very welcome because they can effortlessly deliver an appropriate English accent. Overall, it’s one of the best dubs I’ve heard.

While the film contains several vibrantly kinetic action scenes, it is the wild battle between O’Hara’s mechanized forces and the British army that really stands out. In a deadly game of one-upmanship, both sides keep introducing new inventions to the field, starting with armored battle suits and concluding with dive-bombers. Some, such as a submersible battle suit that menacingly rumbles out of the water, only to slip on a step and fall right back in, are less successful than others. The violence is surprisingly modest for an anime action film, but mysteriously the MPAA rated it PG-13 anyway.

Is it live or is it Memorex?It comes as no surprise to those who’ve seen Otomo’s other works that Steamboy looks absolutely fantastic. As in Metropolis, which Otomo penned and comrade Rintaro directed, there is extensive use of CGI, but here it supports the traditional animation rather than dominates it. The movement is quite fluid, and the art design is simply out of this world. Nineteenth-century England comes to life in the exquisite backgrounds. Best of all is the wide array of eccentric-yet-plausible inventions on display. Even though these things didn’t actually exist in 1866, most of them look as if they could have, seamlessly blending outlandish functions with the design trends of the period in a most imaginative manner.

The soaring score, by The Island‘s Steve Jablonsky, may be conventional for Otomo, but it’s entirely fitting for the material and really gives it an emotional lift. If you enjoyed Sky Captain‘s score, this is in the same mold.

The only thing really missing from the excellent selection of extras is a commentary track. But in the lengthy and detailed “Re-voicing Steamboy,” Paquin, Molina, and Stewart share their thoughts on playing their roles. Interestingly, Steamboy‘s original Japanese sound director oversaw the recording sessions, perhaps to ensure adherence to the intent of the original dialogue. There is a brief interview with the laconic Otomo, intercut with a few glimpses of the production, where he explains that he had begun the film seven years earlier, working from an idea that came out of his segment “Cannon Fodder” from the 1995 anthology film Memories. “Cannon Fodder” is an obvoius study for Steamboy, highlighting retrofuturistic steam-powered cannons. Far more satisfying is a split-screen presentation that compares London scenes with real locations as it plays interviews with Otomo and other production staff about the animation process. Otomo says he didn’t want the CGI to make the film look perfectly real but rather as if it were a painting. Normally I wouldn’t consider clean ending credits to be worth mentioning, but in this case it’s good to be able to savor every last detail of this sublime sequence, which uses stills to lay out a thrilling sequel adventure. “Animation Onion Skins” shows the evolution of five scenes from rough animation to the final polished product. Finally, there is a gallery of beautiful, full-color artwork depicting places and scenes from the film. I’d gladly hang this stuff on my wall.

Watch Steamboy now. Anyone with any love of animation or adventure will be blown away by this spectacular joyride, which is both old-fashioned and also very cutting edge. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to pester Otomo to hurry up and invent that sequel.

Steamboy will be in stores on DVD tomorrow, July 26.

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