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"Astro Boy": Spam in a Can

by on October 27, 2009

Mark my words: The day is not long distant when some boorish entrepreneur has the bright idea of making a CG-animated adaptation of Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away or some other Miyazaki classic. Maybe no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public, but neither did anyone ever lose a bet by underestimating the presumption of American film producers.

It’s not my intention to rank Astro Boy up there with Miyazaki; I don’t mean any sort of comparison between the two, because I’ve never seen the original. Those who know the original may or may not pick a quarrel with David Bowers’ just-released CG-animated adaptation of the series. But I doubt Tezuka Osamu would be revered today if his Astro Boy was on a par with Bowers’.

The present film is set in Metro City, a floating island-in-the-sky that seceded from the surface world some time in the past The city’s chief scientist, Dr. Tenma (Nicholas Cage), has fashioned a wide variety of robots to service Metro City’s inhabitants, and when his own son, Toby (Freddie Highmore), is killed in an accident he creates a robot duplicate as a replacement. Alas, he soon decides this was a mistake and orders the robot out of his life. Chased to the surface, robo-Toby (or “Astro,” which he takes as a new name) falls in with the scavenging surface dwellers for a spell before he is taken back to Metro City, where he winds up fighting and defeating a giant robot.

Whatever else can be said against Astro Boy, at least it evinces a certain dim-minded ambition. In structure and theme it resembles nothing so much as a kiddified version of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. (Even many of its incidents, such as Astro’s entrapment in a battle-bots amphitheater, seem borrowed from the Spielberg film.) I happened to like A.I. quite a lot—which puts me in a minority of moviegoers—but even I admit it was in many ways a failed project. All credit to these filmmakers for trying, but I’ll be switched if they can succeed where Spielberg didn’t. Astro Boy is crude and coarse in a way that blights the emotional core of its inverted Pinocchio story.

Of course, it’s a tough story they’re trying tell. In the classic “hero” story the main character has to grow or change. But here Astro is a creation that is already in all the pertinent senses “real”: he doesn’t have to become a “real boy,” he only has to get others to recognize and accept him for what(ever) he is. This means that Astro is a very passive character, and the movie has to create tearjerking scenes of rejection and homesickness to compensate. There is some folderol about Astro trying to “find his place,” and about how he finds it as a “hero” in Metro City. But the film undermines it by trotting out the Laws of Robotics. So, does Astro become a hero because he saves people, or is he just acting out his programming? The question is never explicitly posed, but alert viewers won’t be able to miss it, and so will likely find themselves cocking a skeptical eyebrow at the film’s denouement.

The story also misses opportunities for Astro to dig into himself. He has been implanted with the real Toby’s memories, and “wakes up” in his father’s lab with no sense that he isn’t Toby. Now, think about this from Astro’s point of view. He feels certain that he is Toby; he feels as certain that he is Toby as Toby himself would feel. How shattered would the real Toby feel about being rejected as an imposter? That’s exactly how shattered Astro should feel. It is a devastating moment for Astro, but once he has turned his X-ray vision on himself, he comes to terms with his own imposture pretty quickly: far more quickly than you or I, probably, would feel about discovering that all our memories and emotions were faked.

Instead of digging into its central robot character, the film tries broadening its theme by working up a putative tension between the humans and the robots. If Astro deserves love and respect, don’t all the others? So there’s a kind of “Robot Emancipation” scene at the end of the movie, and there’s a running gag about a trio of incompetent robot “revolutionaries.” But these additions don’t bring any more focus to the tale. Questions about where to draw the line between man and machine would have been sharper if they’d been focused exclusively on Astro. As it is, there are so many silly robots—like the flying squeegee bottles—that you’ll just get a headache if you try to figure out which robots get human rights and respect and which ones don’t.

All the failures I’ve described above are failures of theme, and are in a way backhanded compliments to the film; it’s sufficiently complex that you can actually criticize it on some pretty abstract points. The really soul-crushing stuff, though, is at the level it shares with all the other junky CG-animated films out there.

The plot doesn’t make any real sense—the relationship between Metro City and the surface, for instance, is, to put it kindly, murky, and the movie has to surround Astro’s story with a silly subplot about a political campaign. The story also seems to go out of its way to make even its “sympathetic” characters unsympathetic. Dr. Tenma is a prissy, weak-willed overachiever whose one moment of strength (toward the end, when he defies Metro City’s president) is wholly unmotivated. His colleague, Dr. Elefun (Bill Nighy), is so overbearingly saintly that you want to smack him across the mouth with a dead fish. The kids Astro falls in with are the stereotypical smartmouths that all cinema “kids” are required to be today. The most attractive character, Nathan Lane’s Ham Egg, starts off as Geppetto character and then unaccountably turns into a Stromboli. Far and away the worst offender, though, is the turd sniffing chief of Metro City, President Stone (Donald Sutherland). Everything bad that happens in the movie can be traced to this moron’s inexplicable predilection for bad decision-making—inexplicable, that is, except for the movie’s needing someone to do something both stupid and loathsome in order to advance the plot. He’s not even a legitimate threat most of the time, so he manages to hit the perfect trifecta: dumb, evil, and pathetic.

The movie’s surfaces have a bright sheen—this is one well-polished tin can—and it looks very good on the big screen. The acting (both by the animators and the voice performers) is refreshingly sedate, with none of the limb-flailing or eye-rolling that other CG-animated films use as substitutes for characterization. The movie is also confident enough to have some slow, sweet moments. Moment by moment, in fact, the movie can be quite entertaining and even moving. But as the plot progresses the movie sheds credibility, nuance and emotion, like a rattletrap Tin Lizzie.

It does no one any good to compare Astro Boy to Pixar’s Toy Story movies—the latter are also about little “fakes” coming to terms with their relationship to real people and their place in the world. I’m happy to see someone push for something a little more ambitious than Toy Story, which works very well by being very modest with its concept. But there is too little muscle behind Astro Boy. Sometimes the simpler toys—the original Pinocchio or Woody of Woody’s Roundup—are better than the bigger ones.

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