Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: (voices) Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell, Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Nighy, Donald Sutherland, Matt Lucas, Moises Arias, Eugene Levy, Nathan Lane, Madeline Carroll, Ryan Stiles, Sterling Beaumon, Victor Bonavida, Tony Matthews, Charlize Theron (narrator)
Written by: Timothy Harris, David Bowers, based on a comic series created by Tezuka Osamu
Directed by: David Bowers
MPAA Rating: PG for some action and peril, and brief mild language
Running Time: 94
Date: 10/05/2009
IMDB

Astro Boy (2009)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Little Roboto

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The new CG-animated feature film Astro Boy begins with a young boy dying in a blast right in front of his helpless father's eyes. The father (voiced by Nicolas Cage) feverishly rebuilds him as a robot, but then rejects him and banishes him. From there, the boy is viciously attacked by giant spaceships and robots, smacked through the air, and pummeled against buildings amidst a spray of bullets across the skyline (including -- no kidding -- a butt gun). It's all presented with a lack of real emotion and in a hail of noise and explosions. Who is this movie for?

"Astro Boy" first came into being as a Japanese manga in 1952 and then as a cartoon series in 1963. Two more cartoon series followed in 1980 and 2003, and many, many American kids grew up on the cheap looking, but thrilling animation and the idea of a superhero kid. Probably there are many adults who today look back with warm nostalgia on these shows and comics, but without any illusions about their quality. The new American movie makes the mistake of ignoring the nostalgia and/or geek factor of the franchise and instead becomes a slick, state-of-the-art product devoid of charm. Yet it's also too violent and too crushingly obvious for kids. (Theatrically, it earned less than $20 million back on its $65 million budget.)

Moreover, the film comes with a clumsy political allegory, in which the wealthiest and most elite of the human population lives in an opulent floating city called Metro City. Robots perform all of the menial tasks, and when they wear out, they're simply dumped to the surface, which -- as better demonstrated in WALL-E -- is covered in trash. President Stone (Donald Sutherland) is an evil warmonger who is up for re-election and whose ratings are tumbling. He decides to arm a major new weapon and declare war on the surface to boost his approval. (It worked for two generations of Bushes.) Of course, there are all kinds of outcasts living on the surface and trying to scrape by, and that's where Astro Boy ends up.

He makes some new friends, including the big-eyed, dye-hair, cutie-pie Cora (voiced by Kristen Bell), and the goofy robot builder Hamegg (voiced by Nathan Lane). Astro can't tell them he's a robot, and when they find out, he's forced to fight in a brutal robot deathmatch. Then we get the usual stuff in which his "betrayed" friends learn to trust him again and a happy "be yourself" conclusion. The film totally fails to realize the much darker, underlying material having to do with the fear of becoming separated from one's parents (or creators), brilliantly covered in much better films like A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Coraline (2009).

The only saving grace -- aside from the great-looking, professional animation -- is the talented voice of Freddie Highmore as Astro Boy. He takes this ridiculous character and gives him, for fleeting moments, something resembling a soul.

DVD Details: The new DVD from Summit comes with several featurettes about adapting Astro Boy, recording the voices and designing the look of the film. There are also two new short animated sequences.