Likely destined to follow in the footsteps of its animated, robotic predecessor The Iron Giant (into some level of obscurity and cult-like reverence), Astro Boy is in every respect a stronger, more worthwhile film than most everything that actually aims at kids that has come along in decades. Perhaps a statement that is startlingly bold, but among the recent competition, animated films are either – only for kids in a sort of sideways sense (Up, Wall-E), or appeal to them largely in the simplest terms, and in some cases as though we do not have a great deal of respect for them (I won’t name names).
Nothing really against a solid effort of simplest terms, by the way. There is certainly something to be said for a movie for kids that is upfront about delivering an excuse for a good many gags, because kids are going to have a good time. On the other hand, Astro Boy, like The Iron Giant, is built solidly on the foundational idea that kids, ultimately, are just really brilliant. That they happen to be, in many respects, rather easily entertained is not something we should pay much attention to.
To a great extent a kind of Super Pinocchio story, Astro Boy is created when an accident of robotics results in the death of the world’s most brilliant scientist’s son. Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage), in a fit of despair, uses his son’s DNA to make the most powerful robot the world has ever known (in a world filled with robots), complete with his son’s memories.
Unfortunately, the new Toby, while having the memories and DNA-manufactured dispositions (I guess) of the old Toby, is nevertheless quite a different “boy.” He acts with a different character, and simply has other influences on him as a “person.” To Dr. Tenma’s dismay, it turns out that instead of bringing his boy back, he has only managed to create a “living” representation of not-Tobyness, and he is left more haunted by his son’s death than before.
Toby learns that his father wants to deactivate him. At the same time, the evil President of Metro City learns that the blue core (just play along) was not destroyed in that initial experiment gone wrong, and is in fact powering Toby. Unwanted by his father, and all too wanted by President Stone, Toby accidentally escapes to our somewhat spun Pleasure Island, which is the surface of the planet. We discover that Metro City is a floating city, and that the surface of the planet is mostly a waste of scrap that Metro City simply chucks overboard.
Toby finds a band of orphans who are led by robot tech Ham Egg (and yes, events will unfold in a kind of “theater” angle), and like everyone else on the surface, it is a group of the unwanted and outcast trying to make do with what they can.
Events at this point transpire much as you might imagine from a plot arc perspective, but the relevant score here is not what happens, but how it happens. While only occasionally funny, Astro Boy is more fun by miles than anything all year. Your child will not burst out laughing every few minutes, but will instead inch forward in their seat, eyes bulging, filled with the kind of wonder rarely witnessed outside of Ralphie staring through the store window at Red Rider.
Even the slower bits of exposition manage that perfect balance of talking to children, without talking down to them, and work the necessary plot steps like a book they just can’t put down.
It is an interesting statement that animated films aimed at kids (and films aimed at kids in general) have largely moved away from truly making any attempt at “thrilling.” Even the best of them are only fun and funny, perhaps mildly adventurous, but they are not thrilling. Children may want to go and buy all the toys when the thing is over, but they are not spent. They may imagine the characters flying off to save the day even, but they do not fly themselves. Astro Boy is hard to describe without using the word “thrilling.” It is wonder itself to the proper pair of eyes, and like a roller-coaster, may not particular inspire anyone to demand a certain toy, or laugh (technically speaking), but will instead move most to dance, jump, roar, and scream their way back into line.
Director/co-writer David Bowers has worked on several of the more interesting (though not the best) animated films since 1990, and he has apparently learned his lessons well. In some way involved with – Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, Balto, The Prince of Egypt, Chicken Run, Flushed Away, and more, he has taken the stronger abilities of all those films with him into this one, and it is impressive to see the progression of his own work.
From what we’ll pretend is a very trained, adult perspective, I have some reservations about a few things. A little too here, maybe a shorter version of this scene there, a tweaking of the evilness of our evil… perhaps there are several things. In time they may bother me more, or I may not notice them at all. But, there certainly are some very legitimate points one might make about the film. I for one am not of a mind to try and explain these points to the 8 to 12 year-olds whooping and zooming their way out of the theater.
That is only true (for there are stupid, useless movies kids love too) because while my own eight year-old cannot explain the meaning of the film particularly well, he can make it clear that he understands it. And, that’s actually what stories are for.
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