Directed by: David Bowers (Flushed Away)
Starring: (Voices) Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Bill Nighy, Donald Sutherland, Kristen Bell
Sometimes, after weeks upon weeks of just watching the worst movies imaginable—the stupid, the puerile, the just plain awful—the simple act of watching a film that at least attempts to say something is something to applaud. No, David Bowers’ Astro Boy adds nothing new to the world of animated adventures, and its political undertones are a bit on the obvious, heavy-handed side. But Bowers (Flushed Away), nevertheless, approaches the material with enough good nature and heart that it makes it all mesh together.
Based on Osamu Tezuka’s more than half-century-old comic book and the subsequent animated show that it spawned, the movie is an attempt at updating, modernizing (with CGI animation) and introducing the character of Astro Boy to a new audience. The gist is the same. Earth has become a polluted, undesirable place to live, except for one technologically advanced city that floats above the surface where robots have been created to do everyone’s dirty work. Of course, like every sci-fi utopia, not everything’s as pleasant as it looks, especially since it’s an election year and the city’s president, General Stone (Donald Sutherland), is trying to win his re-election through warmongering.
All this leads to a freak accident, where the son (Freddie Highmore) of brilliant scientist Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage) is killed, causing the grief-stricken doctor—in a somewhat creepy stroke of mourning—to make a super-powered robot version of his dead son. But before this all gets too unsettling, Dr. Tenma realizes this substitute son, now christened Astro Boy, can’t replace his human son.
The film does nothing really surprising from this point, and consists of Astro Boy figuring out where he fits in the world before taking the path of redemption and heroism. Nothing special by any means, but there’s a bit of humanity in the way not only Astro Boy is handled, but the supporting characters who surround him as well. And since Bowers has a history of working for Wallace and Gromit creator Aardman, that same agreeably goofy sense of humor has been transferred to this film, something that separates Astro Boy from the Delgos (2008) and Battle for Terras (2009) of the world.
There’s also some political satire tacked on, with General Stone wanting to start a war with anyone and anything in an attempt to win re-election over his “patchouli smelling hippie” opponent. No, it’s not subtle, but it never needs to be, and never feels like the point of the film, but just another layer to it. And it’s definitely a welcome relief from the usual onslaught of pop-culture references that festoon most animated movies these days. In the end, the movie is pleasant enough, fast-paced enough and delivers enough of what you want it to do that it’s a difficult movie to honestly dislike. Rated PG for some action and peril, and brief mild language.