Before I watched it, I was not at all upset that I missed Astro Boy at the cinema. The quality of CG looked substandard, Americanized adaptations of manga are notoriously almost always dire and the trailer, with its focus on butt-guns, made it look like the tone would be patronizing and unfunny.
So I was surprised and delighted when it transpired that I this was a film I adored, to the extent that I’m actually quite upset I didn’t see it in the cinema, and even toyed with the idea of waking early to catch it in one of the last places it was showing. It saddens me that it will always be remembered as a box-office failure with low aggregate scores on film review websites like Rotten Tomatoes – although if you go there, you soon realize that the critics are polarized: there are some who deplore the film as unoriginal and derivative, but others who enthuse much as I am enthusing now. This is the first film in a long time, I think since Pan’s Labyrinth, that has actually made me want to buy the DVD – and that includes Wall-E.
For all the reviewers’ eagerness to draw comparisons with other CG films, though, the one that this was most reminiscent of was A.I., and of course it is well worth remembering that Tezuka was coming up with these concepts in the 50s, albeit in his style of the time, which was rather twee and oversimplified. But this is a film of the new millennium, and anything but simple.
What struck me about this film was its madness. I don’t understand the people calling it formulaic, because it’s amazing to me that the script was passed. Astro Boy deals with a father’s guilt over the death of a child, the possibility of absolute parental rejection, harrowing ideas of identity, belonging and humanity and concepts of social inequality. The emotions poor Toby is subjected to, as well as those of Tenma, really shocked me. I was far more moved here than by The Lovely Bones or its ilk.
Not only did it have surprising depth, but it was also quirky in a very appealing way. The comic relief, done in very British style, was actually amusing, and the inventive action sequences were far cleverer than I had anticipated – plus the sheer scale of the final showdown was impressive, Astro himself managing to fill sweet, pitiable and awesome roles.
There were flaws, undeniably. Parodies of Obama’s slogans, a character design for Kristen Bell’s character that will date very quickly, a warmongering bad guy whose personality just failed to actually have a third dimension and a scene where it seems Astro will refuse to destroy any other robots on moral grounds but then wordlessly trashes dozens could’ve been better thought-through, and yes, in visual terms it was a fair bit behind the pack – although that’s something any Tezuka fan ought to be used to.
Voice acting was generally very good. Freddie Highmore seemed an odd choice to me, a bit old and deep-voiced for the role, but his American accent was good and he brought a real softness and likeability to the role. There were some big names involved, Nathan Lane and Eugene Levy providing witty, if slightly lazy turns, Samuel L. Jackson showing up for one line, and Nicholas Cage and Bill Nighy giving performances I’d like to think they really did care about.
Imagi, the Hong Kong-based company which provided the animation, has now shut down, possibly as a direct result of the financial failure of this film. That is such a shame, and I hope that the planned sequel really will get outsourced and made.
(originally written 26.2.10)