Robotic boy wonder with a heart of blue

Are there no new stories left to tell these days? It would seem so, at least from looking at Hollywood’s constant slew of remakes, adaptations and sequels. Of course, there’s nothing novel in this, and neither is there anything wrong with retelling and re-inventing tales either – in fact it can be clever and entertaining when done right.

Astro Boy, both an American computer-animated adaptation of a popular long-running Japanese manga series and homage to/rip-off of several movies, is not at all clever, but it is entertaining, in a noisy, shallow and sometimes perplexing way.

In the futuristic Metro City, a metropolis that floats above the mostly desolate, robot-parts-covered Earth (known as “Surface”), scientists Dr. Tenma (voiced by Nicholas Cage) and Dr. Elefun (Bill Nighy) discover two cores of awesome energy, one blue and good, the other red and bad. These are hoped to amp up national security and thus ensure the re-election of devious President Stone (Donald Sutherland).

After an experiment gone wrong, Dr. Tenma’s genius son Toby (Freddie Highmore) is accidently vaporized, leading the bereaved father to create a fantastic robot in his image, powered by the good blue core.

However, the robot cannot fulfill his “father’s” expectations, and eventually sets off to find his own place in the world, in the process getting to grips with his robot superpowers, making both robot and human friends, and acquiring a new name: Astro.

The plot is simple and unsurprising, and highly reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film A.I: Artificial Intelligence, minus the infinite running time, syrupy schmaltz and Robin Williams; with elements of Wall-E, The Iron Giant, Pinocchio and Oliver Twist thrown in for good measure. There are even a few, bizarre throwaway references to movies outside the “boy/robot on a quest” genre, such as Lassie, Twilight (of course) and Marilyn Monroe’s The Seven Year Itch.

This mix of cinematic nods, combined with the speedy pacing and action-packed sequences sometimes results in confusion – you might want to avoid blinking for its duration, as you’re bound to find yourself wondering why one character or another has transformed dramatically. Still, as it’s generally so predictable, you won’t be baffled for long – or you’ll soon be distracted by another random occurrence.

The voice-casting is so-so, neither enhancing nor distracting. The English Highmore, the adolescent star of the moment (following in the hallowed, sneaker-clad footsteps of Macaulay Culkin and Haley Joel Osment), pimps out his reasonable American accent (as heard in The Spiderwick Chronicles and August Rush), rounding out Astro as a sweet, inoffensive and dull superhero.

Cage, Sutherland and Nighy all sound like they’re phoning in their vocal performances (maybe they did), while Nathan Lane (Mousetrap) is the most energetic as the Fagin-like Hamegg, a former robotics scientist who gets orphans to forage for robot parts in return for shelter and moldy pizza.

Gossip Girl’s Kristen Bell voices the de-facto leader of the orphans, Cora, with the expected amount of sass. Eugene Levy (Jim’s Dad in the American Pie movies) is adequately awkward and subservient-sounding as Dr. Tenma’s robot servant Orrin, and Samuel L. Jackson vocally cameos (not quite as enjoyably as in Inglourious Basterds) as Zog, an antique behemoth of a robot.

As a complement to the lackluster vocal performances, Astro Boy’s graphics are mostly mediocre and cheap-looking, no doubt due to an attempt to balance the distinctive original anime-style with 3D-rendering.

The human characters look creepy, particularly Dr. Tenma and President Stone, who both bear a twisted resemblance to their respective voice actors, and the design of the robots is uninspired. Astro sticks out like a sore thumb, with his large head, tubular torso and Popeye-style forearms.

Visual environments don’t fare much better: Metro City is sparse and unimaginative, lacking atmosphere. However, there a few, briefly striking scenes on Surface, like when Astro finds himself in an eerie robot graveyard or when the orphans walk through breezy grasslands and stumble across a huge 100-year-old robot.

Astro Boy also touches on many themes: slavery, a parent’s grief over a lost child, human wastefulness, the corrupting effects of power, what it means to be human… all potentially profound, but any possible in-depth exploration is glossed over in favor of action and comedy.

Indeed, the film’s main saving grace is its frequent bursts of laugh-out-loud humor, mostly courtesy of a trashcan robot puppy and a trio of Cockney-accented renegade robots (Matt Lucas, Nighy) dubbing themselves the Robot Liberation Front (RLF), who are thwarted in their efforts to teach slave-driving humans a lesson by the robotic law that “a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm”. The RLF provide one of the most effective (if obvious) visual gags, in which they are puzzled to be found in their hideout, despite all the neon signs marking it as such.

All in all, Hollywood’s take on Astro Boy is funny, fast-paced, frivolous and forgettable – it’s doubtful there are any sequels in store for this tale.

(Two out of five stars)

Astro Boy (2009, Summit Entertainment, 94 minutes) Directed by David Bowers Produced by Maryann Garger Written by Osamu Tezuka (manga), Timothy Harris (screenplay) Starring Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Donald Sutherland, Kristen Bell, Eugene Levy, Nathan Lane, Bill Nighy, Madeline Carroll, Matt Lucas

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