Based on the long-running anime of the same name, Astro Boy comes across like a film that unsuccessfully attempts to blend the darker nature of the source material with the joyous and safe ideals of the Hollywood children’s film. It winds up failing at both. Those Astro Boy fans who could have been following the series for several decades will be disappointed with this adaptation, while those looking to get into it will not want to use this film as a jumping-off point.
The plot takes a while to set up, so hold on for the description. We’re in the future. Robots do pretty much everything that humans no longer want to do. The most elite citizens live in a city in the sky. In this city, two cores exist. One is pure positive energy, while the other is exactly the opposite. The mayor (voice of Donald Sutherland) wants to use the cores to power a military robot and then wage war against those on Earth’s surface. The robot goes berserk, kills the son, Toby (Freddie Highmore) of the head of the Ministry of Science (Nicolas Cage) and this is only in the first few scenes.
This Ministry of Science head, Tenma, is crazy. He makes a robot infused with the memories of his son, puts in that pure-goodness core, and essentially makes a clone of the recently deceased. The mayor wants the core, Toby falls to the surface and falls in with a bunch of orphan children, and from there the film becomes a complete bore. It gets sweet and ideal and there never seems to be any danger, and the two action scenes that take place are so uninspired that I found myself wishing for something to draw my eye.
Out-of-place are a bunch of political messages that might seem funny to adults — “Look at history: negative energy always wins” being one of my favorites — but will bore the children who are the film’s target audience. The intense opening moments might also be too intense for some of the younger viewers. Robot combat factors in a lot, which allows for more violent fight scenes than a PG rating generally permits.
There’s something about an extremely well-known and talented cast in an animated film. This isn’t always the case, but it often means that the film they’re in won’t be particularly good. It’s like the filmmakers are aware that what they’re making is nothing special — or based on a property that doesn’t have much draw power, which might be the case here — so they decide to fill it with big names in an attempt to (1) get butts into seats and (2) disguise the lack of quality because “IT’S SAMUEL L. JACKSON VOICING A HUGE ROBOT! THAT’S AWESOME!”
As a result, Astro Boy can be marketed as having characters performed by the aforementioned Samuel L. Jackson, along with Charlize Theron, Freddie Highmore, Kristen Bell, Bill Nighy, Eugene Levy, Donald Sutherland, Nicolas Cage, and others, even if the majority of these people and the characters they voice don’t appear for that much of the film. In fact, apart from Highmore, most of these other actors are in the film for about ten minutes. Maybe even less. I didn’t even know Theron had a role until I looked it up online. It turns out she’s the first voice we here, as she describes essentially what I told you in this review’s second paragraph.
It’s not even that the voice work is especially bad or distracting — these names are usually known because they’re talented and good at their jobs — but it just seems to be what happens with these lackluster animated pictures. The ones that are more confident in their quality hire voice actors and not just the biggest names that can be found. It’s not like hiring big names can’t work, and I’m sure a dozen or so examples can be found where it worked out fine, but the “throw money at the problem” solution seems to be used far too often in these films.
There’s a lack of depth to everything in Astro Boy. From the story, to the characters, to the animation — it’s all bland. Astro Boy doesn’t clear, or even really approach, the standard we use to evaluate these types of films. There’s no creativity, and that’s something that could have held my attention. Alas, this is a paint-by-numbers animated film.
I mean that in terms of the animation, too. There’s no texture to these models, making them all — including all of the actual humans — seem like robots. Considering there’s some attempt to bring up class struggles, telling people and robots apart is something that should have been central on the filmmakers’ minds. I half expected to learn that all the “humans” still on the surface of Earth were actually robots and they accepted Toby because they knew what he was. I was disappointed.
The animation itself isn’t too bad, but it’s nothing special and because it isn’t used to do anything that’s worth watching, it’s hard to care. The characters are so incredibly shallow that it would be an insult to the first dimension to call them one-dimensional. You’ll see exactly where the plot is going from the moment that Toby is thought of as an “outcast.” There isn’t a shred of originality to Astro Boy, and I just hope that it doesn’t wind up being anyone’s first exposure to the franchise.