In the world of animation, Astro Boy is a veritable antediluvian. In fact, it’s the first televised anime series. Created in manga form in 1952 by the legendary Osamu Tezuka, the character has a rich and wonderful history. Originally named “Mighty Atom”, Astro Boy has appeared in comic serials running from 1952 to 1958, 1972 to 1973, and again in 1980 to 1981. The anime series aired between 1963 and 1966, with another run, featuring a darker theme, in the 1980’s. There was a live-action movie way back in 1962 as well, and talk of an animated film circulated ever since Walt Disney met Tezuka at the 1964 World’s Fair.
The character was inducted into the Robot Hall of Fame in 2004 and in 2007 became Japan’s envoy for overseas safety.
The original incarnation featured a futuristic world where robots co-existed with humans. Astro was a bot created by the Minister of Science, Doctor Tenma, to replace his son who died in a car accident. Dr. Tenma soon realized that the little android could never replace his lost son, especially given that Astro could not grow older or express human aesthetics. In the original story, Tenma rejected Astro and sold him to a cruel circus owner, Hamegg. Later, Professor Ochanomizu, the new head of the Ministry of Science, noticed Astro Boy performing in the circus and convinced Hamegg to turn the bot over. He took Astro in and cared for him, soon realizing that Astro had great powers and the ability to experience human emotions. Astro then embarks on numerous adventures, wherein most of his enemies were bot-hating humans, berserk robots or alien invaders.
Now comes the Summit Entertainment and Imagi Studio reimagining of Osamu Tezuka’s vision. Directed by David Bowers (Flushed Away), the brilliant Astro Boy comes to life with modern animation techniques, great voice acting and a story that suits both the original theme and today’s audiences.
The film opens as an educational video, bringing us up to date on the world of Metro City, a metropolis complete with its own incarnation of Mt. Fuji, that floats magically above the barren world below, which appears to be a giant junkyard populated by barbarians and runaways. We soon learn that this video is seen not only by us, but also by a class including Minister of Science Tenmu’s son, Toby (the name was taken from the original character, Tobio). Toby is a brilliant kid, passionate about science and longing to be closer to his hard-working father. With no mother at home, Toby’s only companion is a domestic robot called Orrin, who is subject to the boy’s ability to rewire him at will.
This leads Toby to visit his father at a scientific summit where Tenmu’s colleague, Dr. Elefun is revealing a new discovery: charged bits remaining from a distant star’s explosion. Soon the red and blue energy shards are forcibly taken by the militant President Stone, and the destructive red energy is used to power his newest politcal ploy, a super robot called The Peacekeeper. Unfortunately, activating the weaponized bot with this negative energy leads to terrible consequences and the eventual creation of Astro Boy, who cannot hope to live up the child in whose image he was made, in spite of the positive blue energy that powers him.
So begin Astro’s adventures as he struggles to find a place for himself in Metro City and the world beyond. His travels lead him to encounter a cast of colorful characters, including Hamegg, creator of the Robot Games, the resourceful love interest Cora, and the members of the Robot Revolution. Astro will eventually return to Metro City and face both President Stone and his “father.”
The all-star voice cast does a tremendous job of adding the spark of life to a host of characters. It features such luminaries as Nicolas Cage, Charlize Theron, Donald Sutherand, Samuel L. Jackson and Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland, The Golden Compass) as our hero.
Hong Kong’s Imagi Studio (TMNT, Gatchaman 2008) has outdone itself in this film. The animations are seamless and endearing, if not truly ground-breaking, and the characters have a certain reality to them that can be hard to find in CGI. The film is blended to perfection, with pacing, soundtrack, and a dash of homage sure to keep it enjoyable for viewers of all ages. The plot is obviously geared toward younger viewers, and scripter Timothy Harris and writer/director David Bowers take care to keep the touches of timelessness that made the original works so popular while adding themes appropriate to our own zeitgeist. The visual style of Astro Boy is very much in keeping with the retrofuture look of the original series.
The film is not without flaws, of course: It contains a certain preachiness that is reminiscent of Wall-E, but I didn’t find it overbearing. In fact, its themes reside nicely in the background and are in keeping with those of the original series. Historically loose plot points are tightened, and a unique splash of color is added, but the spirit of Tezuka’s vision shines in the film.
Astro Boy is sure to enchant those anime lovers who can set aside purist ideals–as well as kids of all ages. It displays an elusive “magic” that too many of today’s science fantasy films lack.
I give Astro Boy 7 out of 10.