By Stewie Sutherland
I had the unique opportunity to watch the new film Astro Boy recently, purely as a member of the audience. For this statement to make sense, I have to stress that when it comes to franchises, I’m either a fan or I’m not. Growing up, Astro Boy was a show I vaguely remember as being on very early of a weekday, somewhere near the animated Abbot and Costello show.
I’m showing my age there, I’m sure (I’m 24) and I can only just remember it as something I’d run around the house singing along to when the credits came on. Being the closest thing to an Anime for the time of the late 80’s/early 90’s, Astro Boy was a classic tale of a robot boy who fought crime and evil and saved the world. I think. I can’t stress enough that I can only just remember these details. Long story short, I wasn’t that big of a fan, not when Inspector Gadget did the same job but with the legendary Don Adam’s at the helm.
The setting of this film adaptation reminded me a lot of Wall-E. The futuristic utopia of a flying island, governed and prosperous through the use of science is mirrored by the world left below. It seems Earth has been left to ruin for a long time, with pollution and debris covering most of the surface.
In fact, a lot of the world has just become a dumping ground for the land above, shown in the opening sequence as broken machinery is pushed off the edge of the flying land mass with reckless abandon. Still, amongst the wreck and ruin, people manage to survive. A better part of the cast’s characters are made up of orphans, robots and the like living amongst the giant junkyard-themed environment, believing the people above to be elitist and so forth.
Astro Boy is the story of a special robot in a strange new world. Strange in that every function, job and chore is done by state of the art androids and machines. The most advanced robot ever made, Astro is given armaments simply so that nothing “could ever happen to him”, and I can only promise that by 10 minutes into the movie, the nature of that line is quite clear. Unfortunately, he is soon unwanted and left to fend for himself. Even more unfortunate, his limitless power makes him a target for the more villainous characters of the movie.
Astro Boy is one of those stories that shows anything can have heart. The movie seemed to have the right balance of character development, action, adventure and warmth without being too sappy, but occasionally felt dry and stale. Kids might not ‘get’ a lot of the movie. Die-hard fans of the original baby-faced hero might not like the improvements either, but there’s enough flashy fighting and heart to please either demographic on a superficial level at least.
Astro Boy struck a personal chord for me: a dream career of mine would be to get into voice acting, and the film’s excellent cast list shines through and through here. Nicolas Cage plays the voice of character Doctor Tenma, who creates Astro to replace his lost son. Often, Tenma’s scenes are very thick with emotion and can be put down to nothing short of excellent acting.
Bill Nighy also shows just how far his acting field is as the big-hearted scientist, Dr. Elefun. In the past, Nighy has played the very down-to-earth aging rock star in Love Actually as well as the ghostly terror of the seas as the mythological Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and it can sometimes be hard not to imagine him as either character when his name is mentioned. In Astro Boy though, Nighy is so soft-spoken and warm-hearted, I had to strain my mind to imagine the same energetic guy in a recording booth.
Other voice talents used in this film (aside from the almost-unknown Freddie Highmore as the titular character Astro) are Charlize Theron, Samuel L. Jackson and Little Britain star and creator Matt Lucas, all of whom play bit parts. A lot of the dialogue’s success can be attributed to the villains of the film; Donald Sutherland is a natural as the President of Metro City, up soon for re-election. Sutherland’s voice just seems to be a natural fit, even for a casual line spoken in the film comparing the loss of Cage’s character’s Son to getting divorced. “Hey, I hate losing. I’ve got ex-wives to prove that.”
The other most note-worthy role of the film is Nathan Lane as the dubiously named Ham Egg (sometimes spoken as one word, though credited as two). I definitely don’t want to give away any spoilers: suffice it to say that Lane’s full range of acting will be witnessed by the time the movie is over. Ham Egg seems to be a character you can almost peg down as a certain type, and then be quite surprised when the scene changes. Again, I don’t want to spoil this for anyone; however I’m guessing fans of the original or remake series already know about these characters better than I do!
Visually, Astro Boy is flashy, made by IMAGI Animation Studios, the same team who worked on TMNT (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). The images on-screen are colourful and impressive, but still quite cartoon-like. That might sound silly seeing how some of the characters have noses that resemble bananas or tomatoes, but stylistically it makes sense very early on.
While Pixar make movies that look like the backgrounds were almost filmed, Astro Boy is very much an animation. This is a film for children rather than fans of the original, I’m willing to bet. As for audio, the film makes excellent use of its cast’s talents, despite what size their individual role may be. The soundtrack was a waning point for me however: the composers for the film manage to capture the emotions of the moment but the songs included in the background wouldn’t have been my first choice if I am brutally honest.
In short, Astro Boy is a typical family animation at heart. It’s fun for most, but some children might find it hard to get past the few sadder moments to enjoy it 100%. Also, younger viewers may find it hard to grasp the whole picture without some help from their parents. In the end though, Astro Boy is just another decent to good family flick (with some amazing voice acting!), and on that basis it gets a cautious recommendation from me.
7.5 OUT OF 10.