Astro Boy is the classic tale of a young boy trying to get along with the cards life gives him. Making friends, getting by and generally having a good old time, he’s just like you and me. The only difference is that this kid is a robot. And some people want to kill the death out of him. It’s a futuristic Pinnocchio-inspired CGI romp, and whilst it has a lot to recommend it, ultimately there’s not a lot of human heart beating behind it.
Seeing as we’ve pretty much exhausted Western comic books for cinematic inspiration, it was only a matter of time before the forward thinking Japanese got involved. Astroboy is based on a 1951 Japanese manga comic book created by Osamu Tezuka. In his native Japanese, the eponymous little robot has appeared on postage stamps and in 2004, as well as joining our hero C-3PO and Robby The Robot from Forbidden Planet in the hallowed Robot Hall Of Fame. So what’s the story?
Dr Tenma (Nicolas Cage) is a brilliant scientist working in the crowded, airborne community of Metro City under militaristic President Stone (Donald Sutherland). He is devoted to his son Toby (Freddie Highmore), a chip off the old block, who dies in freakish, slightly confusing circumstances during a demonstration of a volatile dark power source called the Red Core, harnessed by Dr Elefun (a very tongue in cheek Bill Nighy). Consumed by grief, Tenma resolves to replace his son with a super-powered robot clone implanted with Toby’s memories, which will look, sound and even behave like the offspring he lost. Astro Boy erupts to life, powered by the Blue Core, (a much more awesome core), which must never, ever come into contact with the Red Core (the rubbish core). At first Tenma is delighted, referring to Astro Boy as Toby and encouraging robot servant Orrin (Eugene Levy) to do the same. However, Stone wants to get his hands on the Blue Core and he dispatches his robots to destroy Astro Boy.
Following a skirmish, the hero ends up on the surface of a devastated planet Earth where he meets a gang of abandoned kids and their robot dog. Unaware that he is a robot, Astro Boy bonds with his new fleshy friends, hoping that he can start a new life. But someone on Earth knows his secret and will exploit the child’s powers for public spectacle in the metal-crunching Robot Games…
Astroboy is exceedingly slick animation-wise and there are plenty of eye-popping thrills for younger viewers, including a climactic showdown with a rather brilliantly terrifying robot that threatens to raze the world Astroboy has landed on. The only problem is that with all the whizz-pop whizz-bangery going on, you never really get to the core of the characters, leaving you entertained but ultimately uncaring. Director Bowers and his team of animators seem more interested in technical might than emotion, sacrificing characterisation for another deafening explosion. Certainly, the film doesn’t spend long enough plumbing the depths of Dr Tenma’s grief for Toby, and so our sympathy for this brilliant man only extends so far. A surfeit of peripheral characters on planet Earth, including talking robots and the street kids exposes the weakness of the script, which is a bit of shame with so much great animation surrounding it.
Still, this is a lot of fun for the young-uns, as well as technically impressive enough to hold your attention for the duration.