I passed a tourist the other day shooting camcorder footage . . . of a building. Now, after watching "Steamboy," Japanimation icon Katsuhiro ("Akira") Otomo's visually resplendent sci-fi adventure set in Victorian England and Korean director Moon Sang Kim's recent, futuristic "Sky Blue," I've figured out what that footage gets used for. It gets sent to the Far East, where teams of animators turn it into gorgeously detailed backgrounds for narratively dull feature-length cartoons. If only they would lavish as much attention and money on the human characters as they do on the sets, maybe they'd have something. (Oh, wait, they already tried that. It was called "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.")
Touted as the most expensive Japanese animated film ever made, "Steamboy" is right to brag about the lushness of its reimagined late-19th-century world, a metal-spined and wood-ribbed world in which the power of steam has been harnessed like nuclear energy by a father-and-son team of inventors (voices of Patrick Stewart and Alfred Molina). After an accident in which the younger man is disfigured, a dispute arises between them over the potentially destructive use of this awesome power. Enter the heroic grandson, the aptly named Ray Steam (voiced, with as much boyish enthusiasm as she can muster, by Anna Paquin), who is entrusted with keeping the volatile energy source, contained in a melon-size metal orb called a "steamball," out of the hands of those who would use its power to make weapons.
It's all very loud and metaphorical, with the kind of generically grand, cheesy music that only keeps you from falling asleep when you most need to. Its problem is not a lack of things to look at. There's plenty of them, and they're all cool. It's just that, in this world of clanking, hissing machines, even the people seem like robots.
STEAMBOY (PG-13, 106 minutes) --Contains cartoon violence. At Landmark's E Street Cinema. The last showing of every day will be the original, uncut, Japanese-language version of the film, with subtitles, running 120 minutes.