[Screen It]

"ASTRO BOY"
(2009) (voices of Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage) (PG)

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QUICK TAKE:
Action/Adventure: A boy discovers that he's actually a robotic surrogate son to a scientist/inventor who no longer wants him as his replacement child, unlike a warmongering President who does, but only for the powerful energy source that's in his chest.
PLOT:
In the future, Metro City is a safe and prosperous municipality that floats in the sky above the surface of the planet below that's littered with old robots that have been discarded by the humans up above. The latest generation of those robots have been invented by Dr. Tenma (voice of NICOLAS CAGE) whose young son, Toby (voice of FREDDIE HIGHMORE), seems to have inherited his dad's smarts.

As head of the Ministry of Science working for President Stone (voice of DONALD SUTHERLAND), however, Tenma doesn't have much time for his son, instead allowing house robot Orrin (voice of EUGENE LEVY) to watch over the boy. When the scientist informs Toby that he's been called to work on the Peacekeeper project with his colleague, Dr. Elefun (voice of BILL NIGHY), the boy's interest is piqued.

Accordingly, he sneaks into the lab where he learns about the Blue Core, Elefun's peaceful power source discovered from outer space. But Stone wants the opposing and volatile Red Core inserted into the Peacekeeper robot, and the results are disastrous, with Toby ending up being accidentally killed in the resultant chaos.

Stricken with guilt, and using some of Toby's recovered DNA, Dr. Tenma creates a perfect robotic replica of Toby, but with advanced features, powered by the Blue Core, that should keep him safe. After a while, however, the scientist can't continue with the ruse and tells his son not only that he's a robot, but also that he no longer wants him. But President Stone does, or at least the Blue Core inside him. In the ensuing chase, the robot is knocked out and falls to the planet's surface.

There, he meets a bunch of orphans, including Cora (voice of KRISTEN BELL), Zane (voice of MOISES ARIAS) and Grace (voice of ELLE FANNING), who use an old robotic Trashcan, that believes it's a dog, as a lure to catch robots for Hamegg (voice of NATHAN LANE). He used to work for the Ministry of Science up on Metro City, but now runs a gladiator style contest down below for the amusement of humans. Since the Toby robot appears so human, however, the kids -- who are led to believe his name is Astro -- instantly befriend him, and they go about collecting Zog (voice of SAMUEL L. JACKSON), a huge robot from a bygone era.

Fellow robots Sparx (voice of MATT LUCAS), Robotsky (voice of BILL NIGHY) and Mike the Fridge (voice of DAVID BOWERS), who are the sole members of the Robot Revolutionary Front, know what the robot boy really is and want his help to defeat Hamegg. But with President Stone wanting the Blue Core inside him so that he can wage war with those on the planet below him -- to get reelected -- Astro Boy must contend with all of that while also facing the dangerous and continuously morphing Peacekeeper robot.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Who knew "Astro Boy" leaned left? Right about now, you're probably asking yourself "What is he talking about?" and "Who, by the way, is Astro Boy?" For those not into the world of manga comics and anime animation, or who might not have been around or at least been a TV-watching kid in the 1960s, Astro Boy was a robot character created by Osamu Tezuka in 1951.

Following that comic book success, he eventually segued to TV in 1963 and earned a cult-like following both in his native Japan and in America. The character then resurfaced in 1980 and a third time in a 2003 animated series, resulting in him being inducted into the Robot Hall of Fame (who knew such a thing existed?) in 2004.

Now that you know who he is, it's time to explore the political leaning of said character. As it's been decades since I last saw the original cartoon, I have no recollection of any politics in the series, and with no exposure to the two subsequent resurrections, I can't state where they stand. And to be accurate, the latest incarnation of the title character doesn't endorse any particular political ideology.

The filmmaking duo of writer/director David Bowers and co-writer Timothy Hyde Harris, on the other hand, seemingly haven't pulled any punches regarding their view of right or left or, apparently, the George W. Bush administration. Case in point, the President of their future land (that floats above the rabble and rubble down below on the planet's surface, wants to wage war in order to insure reelection.

Some may accurately defend that by saying war-mongering leaders are nothing new in storytelling. Yet, there's the "little" symbolic element of said ruler wanting to get his hands on the negative and dangerous Red Core energy source that falls in direct contrast to the Blue Core that's positive and peaceful and is intended for the benefit of all humankind.

Hmm, so much for subtlety, but then again the filmmakers don't limit that to the political arena. They also liberally plunder the old Pinocchio theme -- as the title character doesn't immediately realize he's not a real boy but instead is a robotic replacement for his scientist/inventor father's recently departed son -- while also throwing in elements from "Oliver Twist" including a Fagin type character who cares for but takes advantage of a bunch of orphans who do his bidding.

Yes, those are present in the original story, so some slack needs to be cut for the current version. Some viewers, however, will also see similarities to other robot-based movies from the appropriately titled "Robots" (and its civilization of said creations) to "The Iron Giant" (with its anti-war theme) and even "Wall-E" (and its "Let's get off a ruined Earth" symbolism).

While that might make the film not only seem like a story and thematic element thief and/or imitator but also a heavy-handed one at that -- especially considering it's an offering aimed at younger kids (notwithstanding the fan boy crowd) -- only those who get their knickers in a twist will likely be offended or put off.

The target demographic -- especially the younger ones in that bunch -- won't likely notice the ideology and recycled story elements as they'll probably be whisked away by what's otherwise a fairly entertaining ride. They'll certainly identify with the title character and the busy parent/abandoned child theme, and there's certainly plenty of rock 'em, sock 'em action and adventure to keep them fixated to the story and characters.

While not up there in the same league of computer animated visuals as the Pixar films (or in terms of the story and characters for that matter), the visual design is strikingly handsome and pays some respectful homage to Tezuka's original artwork and design.

Vocal performances for the various characters are solid across the board, but I could have done without the various comic relief characters that stand out too much as just that, aren't always particularly funny (a problem when that's your sole reason for existing), and don't really add to the story or overall viewer experience.

Throw in some questionable and/or abbreviated character motivation (mainly regarding the father figure too quickly giving up on the surrogate son apparently just because the plot needed him to do so in order to move forward, as well as the one-dimensional and far too obvious Presidential villain), and the film ends up far from perfect.

Yet, despite all of that and the fairly overt political symbolism, I found the film entertaining and enjoyable enough to earn a passing grade. I'm guessing many kids may just vote the same way, regardless of whether they lean left, right, or stand up straight like they should. "Astro Boy" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed October 13, 2009 / Posted October 23, 2009