Astro Boy

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You tread on shaky ground when you make an animated film for kids that’s also straight-up science fiction — not “The Jetsons” sci-fi, but real sci-fi, with complex ideas and political metaphors and laws of robotics, all that Isaac Asimov stuff. Kids don’t mind a little intellectual depth in their cartoons, but only if it’s secondary to what they came for, which is usually light comedy and adventure.

“Astro Boy,” the new film based on a Japanese comic book and cartoon series from the 1950s and ’60s, seems to have gotten it backwards. The fun and merriment take a back seat to the sci-fi elements, which of themselves are fine, I guess, but probably not what the intended audience is looking for, and not terribly interesting anyway. I’d recommend waiting for the DVD, then watching it with one eye while you do something else. It’s a good one-eye movie.

The story is set in the futuristic Metro City, which hovers a couple hundred feet above the polluted Earth’s surface and is home to many humans and even more robots. People LOVE their robots! One of the city’s top scientists, Dr. Tenma (voice of Nicolas Cage), takes this enthusiasm a bit too far, perhaps, when he makes a robot clone of his dead son, Toby (Freddie Highmore). He even uses some of the boy’s DNA to give the abomination human properties, including all of dead Toby’s memories.

Robot Toby doesn’t even realize he’s a robot at first, not until he discovers that he can fly and has super-strength and a few other new capabilities. Being part human and part machine, he straddles both worlds yet doesn’t fully belong in either one. This is important given that there is strong anti-human sentiment among some robots and anti-robot sentiment among many humans. Remember that Cher song “Half Breed”? It’s just like that.

Most of the film takes place below Metro City, on the Earth itself, where the “surface dwellers” don’t like the way Metro types look down on them (literally and figuratively). Toby, now calling himself Astro and claiming to be an orphan, joins the crew of a benevolent Fagin type named Hamegg (Nathan Lane), who repairs junked robots and cares for a band of ragtag orphans like Astro. Meanwhile, a group called the Robot Revolutionary Front is trying to rise up and have robots recognized as full citizens rather than slaves. These robot agitators have a Leninist flair, but it’s balanced out by their goofy, stooge-like behavior and lower-class-British accents.

Directed by David Bowers (“Flushed Away”) and written by him and Timothy Harris (“Space Jam”), “Astro Boy” seems to have been made with good intentions by people who admire the source material. The production is slick, and the voice actors (who also include Kristen Bell, Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Nighy, and Eugene Levy) are top-notch. It didn’t come from Pixar or DreamWorks, but its technical specs holds their own against those giants.

It’s the story that threatens to sink it. Never mind the intense themes involved in a grieving father creating a robot clone that he eventually rejects for being too inhuman. (What the H? is right.) Never mind the heady topics of racism, class struggles, and warmongering presidents that are sprinkled in. The film is basically a 30-minute superhero-origins story stretched out to 90 minutes. By the time Astro Boy is defined as a character, with clearly delineated goals and ambitions, the movie is over. It spends so much time explaining how he came to be Astro Boy that we don’t get a chance to him actually being Astro Boy. I guess that means the sequel could be fun; this just feels like exposition — funny sometimes, sure, and easy-going enough, but hardly a stand-out.

C+ (1 hr., 34 min.; PG, some serious themes, action violence.)

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