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Good gravy, alert the media, someone’s done made a movie out of Astro Boy.  Making his first Japanese manga appearance in 1952, then on television in 1963, the character, originally known as Tetsuwan Atom, is so beloved in his home country that statues of him grace the major railway stations.  How on Earth could anyone but a Japanese artist touch that iconic ambassador of anime, Osamu Tezuka’s seminal creation, Astro Boy?  British director, Dave Bowers, who previously helmed the underrated Aardman feature, Flushed Away, picks up the gauntlet with the backing of the Chinese-based Imagi Studios and the United States’ Summit Entertainment to create a confection that delights audiences while honouring its revered source material.

Hyper-brilliant and a true prodigy, elementary school student Toby Tenma is a credit to his scientist father, Dr. Tenma.  Fascinated with his dad’s experiments, Toby sneaks into a presentation of his dad’s latest work; positive and negative energy sources that when installed into robots can be used for the purpose of peace, or as his father’s newest sponsor, the hawk-like General Stone wishes, war.  Dr. Tenma learns firsthand what it means to lose a loved one to the ravages of pointless destruction as Toby is caught in the crossfire after the experiment takes a horrifying turn.  Desperate to bring his son back from the dead, Dr. Tenma uses every resource at hand to generate a robotic clone of his child.  At first it seems Tenma’s succeeded, unfortunately the little doppelganger shows evidence of his own personality, which while sweet and charming, isn’t the carbon copy of the boy he’s meant to replace.  Tenma casts the little robot out to fend for himself in the cold cruel world.  Bad enough that, but the Blue Core energy source faux-Toby is carrying around keeping our little misfit alive, is something General Stone desperately wants and is happy to destroy half of Metro City to get.  Luckily, the robot has discovered he’s a little different than other boys what with these cool turbo jets that fire out of the soles of his feet, enabling him to fly and escape from Stone’s dragnet.  Finding himself on the surface of what used to be Earth, the lost mecha is taken in by a gang of children led by the fetching technicolour-coiffed, Cora (Geddit, Core-a?) who live Oliver Twist-like in the den of the robot builder, Hamegg.  This Fagin sends the kids out to forage for bits of hardware he can then turn into gladiator bots, destroying each other for the audience’s fun and Hamegg’s profit.  Hamegg knows a clockwork when he sees one and it isn’t long before faux-Toby, now renamed Astro, is outed as a Metro City robot and put to the test in the arena.  As if that wasn’t enough, General Stone has once again locked onto the Blue Core of Astro’s heart and he’s determined to get it back, hunting Astro down with the increasingly dangerous Red Core-powered Peacekeeper robot.

Fun this, really.  It warmed the cockles of my Red Core-powered heart to sit in the cinema surrounded by fathers and their little boys, rediscovering and discovering for the first time the joy of the child of Osamu Tezuka’s imagination, Astro Boy.  Director Bowers told me over the summer that the most important piece of advice the late Tezuka’s son, Makoto, gave him was to try to maintain his father’s philosophy of love and respect.  The love and respect for the Japanese icon and his creator is here in boatloads; Bowers even sneaks in a cameo of the beret-ed Tezuka himself in animated form and a glimpse of the original Astro Boy blueprints.  For good or ill, Bowers never pushes any envelopes in style or narrative, nor touches any of the slightly questionable bits that fans of the manga or anime might remember: Astro’s curative for Hamegg’s broken robots is mercifully omitted and Tenma’s cruel spurning of the innocent Astro is softened way down.  Bowers is careful to stick to homilies and life lessons that would have made Tezuka proud; civilisation’s over-reliance on technology, what is a soul, the importance of friendship and real family bonds.  There’s even a Wall-E-esque message about the ecology in the wasteland that Earth had become before scientists arbitrarily decided to lift a section off the surface and continuing to use the world below as a junkyard.   All these good thoughts are deftly delivered saccharine-free with a splash of Bowers’ dry British wit.  Bowers opts for more story than action, but injects enough humour to keep it moving, lightening the mood by adding some likeable mecha characters purely for the little ones, like the Robot Revolution Front; three militant metal castaways determined to pursue equality for all robots, including Astro.  Trash Can is literally that, a feisty dog-shaped robot rubbish bin that must have been cute once, but like Astro, was thrown away like trash on the earth’s surface.  In a scene more reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki than Osamu Tezuka, the mountainous Zog receives the kiss of life from Astro’s Blue Core, a makeover from Astro, Cora and friends, and the huge robot never forgets a solid.  The designs are a bit softer as well; the jarring hugeness of Astro’s oversized eyes are lessened and he’s only seen in the classic black shorts / red boots combo for very few scenes, opting for a less-conspicuous blue cardigan and jeans.  While boasting top-drawer, seamless CGI animation and great aesthetics, like the fabulous futuristic exteriors of Metro City, the characters have the look of soft vinyl dolls which takes some of the edge off Dr. Tenma’s sharp, scary features and Dr. Elefun‘s famously large proboscis.  What action there is is loud and scary enough to keep the little Astro Boys (- and Astro Girls) in the movie theatres glued to their seats.  Astro’s discovery of his powers is great fun also, and there won’t be a kid in the audience who won’t cackle at the revelation of machine gun barrels that fire out of Astro’s backside. 

Full of good lessons, brisk pacing and a real humour and sweetness that the original anime sometimes lacked, Astro Boy does Osamu Tezuka’s hugely famous source creation proud while standing on its own as a nifty piece of animated fun. 

 

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Oct 23rd, 2009

 

 

 

 

© 2006-2017 The Diva Review.com

 

 

 

Photos

(Courtesy of  Summit Entertainment)

 

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