While Astro Boy is certainly rich in its scope and ambition, this brings with it a lack of focus.
Here’s a film that has history. The nuts and bolts of this Japanese icon were laid out in Osamu Tezuka’s original 1951 manga and the three popular TV cartoon series that followed (in 1963, 1980 and 2003 respectively).
But for his first big-screen feature outing, the perky young android with the black quiff has been upgraded with all manner of other cinematic influences too, from Pinocchio to Freaks, from Castle in the Sky to AI, from Robots to WALL-E. So while children can get lost in the film’s heady futurist world, adults can play spot-the-allusion.
Thematically, too, Astro Boy has something for everyone. Besides predictable kiddie-flick clichés about the father-son relationship ("I love you, dad!") and the robot-with-the-human-heart, not to mention the perennial appeal of large-scale mecha mayhem, the film also engages with issues of utopianism, exploitation and the environment, presents a villainous Bush-like president (who uses populist war-mongering as an electioneering weapon), and offers an allegorical critique of American insularity and the disposability of those deemed ‘other’ by the state.
While Astro Boy is certainly rich in its scope and ambition, this brings with it a lack of focus. Just as our hero rockets through the high-rise landscape at great velocity, the film itself speeds from this to that, without ever settling on anything long enough to give pause for thought – which is just as well, given that even a moment’s reflection would expose the many implausibilities in the plot.
David Bowers’ stunning CG landscapes are populated with memorably funny characters (both human and robot), and resonate with a chaotic bunch of half-realised ideas left floating in mid-air like Metro City itself. Yet for all the deficit of grounded substance in Astro Boy, there is never a dull moment.
Another nostalgic icon crushed by the Hollywood machine.
Fast, funny and full of filmic allusions.
A free-floating edifice of big ideas never quite brought down to earth.