“Astro Boy” an animated film based on a 1960’s Japanese cartoon, is a surprisingly deep and emotionally mature superhero tale. Despite a fairly pedestrian and action-heavy third act, I found myself thoroughly invested in Astro’s search for a home and sense of belonging.
Astro (Freddie Highmore) is created by the brilliant Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage) to replace Toby, his son who died in a tragic lab accident. Tenma desperately clings to Astro at first, but callously discards him when he realizes that despite the physical resemblance and the fact that he has given Astro his son’s memories, Toby is truly gone.
The scenes between Astro and Tenma are handled with real intelligence and emotional depth. Tenma’s reactions to Astro feel motivated by a father’s grief at the loss of his son and not due to the necessity of the plot. And Astro’s realization of an identity separate from Toby’s is simple but effective.
Starring:Freddie Highmore, Kristen Bell, Bill Nighy, Eugene Levy, Donald Sutherland, Nathan Lane
Runtime: 94 min
It is when Astro goes in search of a new home that the film is at its best visually. The setting of the film changes from the surprisingly visually dull Metro City, a floating metropolis, to the Earth’s surface, long-abandoned by humanity due to pollution and a huge buildup of garbage.
Once there, Astro makes friends with a group of children who have been living on the surface. Cora (Kristen Bell), the spunky leader of the group, is the standout. She spends clear nights trying to contact her parents in Metro City using old cell phones she finds in the massive junk piles that cover much of the Earth’s surface. The shots of Cora sitting on the hood of an old car and staring up at Metro City, framed by the moon and the city floating above her, are the films loveliest.
While the action-heavy third act is nothing particularly special, I was involved enough in Astro’s journey that it did not bother me all that much. The fight scenes are exciting but unoriginal.
The fact that Metro City is poorly rendered does not help the film. Metro City is never portrayed as a bustling metropolis. It seems the animators spent most of their time working on the much more colorful and visually interesting surface of Earth, which robs Astro’s desperate fight to save the city of much of its emotional weight. Why should I care about a city that doesn’t feel real?
The voice acting is solid, with Freddie Highmore being the real standout. Highmore invests Astro with the same intelligent sensitivity that has marked all of his live-action performances.
The film falls into the trap of casting actors with name value instead of finding voices that match the characters. The best example of this is Bill Nighy, who voiced a character that does not suit him physically. Nighy does very nice work. I just didn’t buy his voice coming from the diminutive and fat Dr. Elefun.
“Astro Boy” is far from perfect, but it hooked me anyway. By the end I genuinely cared what happened to Astro. Was the ending all that surprising? No not at all, but it was fun watching Astro get there.
“Astro Boy” is in theaters this Friday.