Published Mar 16, 2013The 2009 CGI film version of Osamu Tezuka's classic manga didn't exactly set the world on fire upon its release. Hardly surprising, given its overt political agenda and the distinctly Japanese flavour that was largely, though not entirely, white-washed by director/co-writer, David Bowers (Flushed Away). But the big screen version of the grandfather of anime isn't as bad as its reputation suggests. Beyond its leftist pandering, blatant environmental admonitory and preoccupation with sad orphans, Astro Boy still has some enjoyable characteristics. Namely: a warm, vibrant animation style that softs, but doesn't erase the futuristic society's inherent weirdness, highly kinetic action sequences, snappy pacing and Asimovian questions (underexplored as they may be) of what constitutes consciousness.
To set the stage, an instructional video narrated by Charlize Theron briefly explains the history of Metro City and its robotic servants. Confronted with severe environmental degradation, the well-to-dos founded a floating metropolis, abandoning the surface as a giant landfill.
In this upper class utopian city, robots attend to all of the undesirable jobs, whether they're dangerous or simply tedious. Any damaged robot servants are heaved off the edge of the city to collect in mounds like one of Stalin's mass graves. The man responsible for the technical innovations in robotics that Metro City depends on is Dr. Tenma (blandly voiced by Nicolas Cage), a brilliant scientist with a prodigious son named Toby (Freddie Highmore).
When the military rashly pushes for the development of a nearly limitless extraterrestrial energy source, which comes in blue (positive) and red (negative) form, to be weaponized, the experiment goes awry, vaporizing young Toby in the process.
Overwhelmed by grief, Tenma builds an extremely powerful and resilient robot in the likeness of his son and gives it Toby's memories, which he extracts from a DNA sample (just go with it), powering the robo-surrogate with the blue energy core. At first, Tenma is intent on being the attentive father he never was, but he very quickly realizes that what he has created isn't an exact replica of the boy he lost, petulantly electing to discard him with all of the other second class robot citizens.
For the rest of the movie, Toby, or Astro, as he comes to be called, tries to find a place to fit in, being pursued by the cackling one-dimensional President Stone (Donald Sutherland), who's desperate to start a war in order to boost his chances of re-election, hiding what he really is from a pack of human discards on the planet's third-world surface.
It's all rather preachy and didactic but the film's superficial components are quite well engineered, especially the climatic robot battle, even though a bit of interior logic is fudged in order to close the loop of emotional resolution.
Astro Boy screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Comic Book Heroes retrospective at 1pm on March 18th, 2013. (eOne)