He's caught between two worlds
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Oct. 23, 2009
Is "Astro Boy" a glimpse of the future? Or a relic of the bygone past?
On the one hand, it's inspired by the beloved 1960s television cartoon of the same name, created by Japanese manga/anime icon Osamu Tezuka. On the other hand, its hero is a pre-adolescent android in an Epcot Center-like world called Metro City that floats above an ecologically devastated Earth. The humans that live there are attended by a corps of menial slave-bots. Only they're not the futuristic, "Blade Runner" kind, but the retro, "Lost in Space" kind. They look like they were designed by Sears.
Astro, the movie's mechanical-boy hero (Freddie Highmore), is different. "I've got machine guns!" he announces, upon discovering one of his many high-tech accessories. "In my butt!"
If you've seen the commercials for the movie -- whose plot revolves around Astro's struggle to liberate the robots, negotiate peace between the residents of Earth and Metro City, and square things with his estranged father-figure creator, Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage) -- you've heard that line. And you've got your answer to the question at the top of this review. Despite its mid-20th-century pedigree and its sci-fi setting, "Astro Boy" is almost defiantly a movie of today.
While the film retains some of the DNA of the original TV series, it bears more similarity to such recent fare as "WallE" and "Transformers." In other words, despite a sweetly ecological message, it can get loud and moderately violent. True, it's machines that suffer the most damage, but the film opens with the death of Tenma's son, for whom Astro is a nuts-and-bolts surrogate.
As for the film's look, the CGI animation shares the same Mr. Potato Head level of facial expression and stiff-limbed locomotion as "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius."
Good thing. Because, at first, nobody -- including the title character -- is exactly sure whether Astro is a real kid or not. His journey toward acceptance of both his robot nature (think: guns in his butt) and his, for lack of a better word, humanity is the real story at the heart of "Astro Boy." It will put some viewers in mind of yet another story with the same theme: "Pinocchio."
Contains cartoon violence, a couple of bits of bathroom humor and thematic material related to the death of a child.