Thursday, September 9, 2010

"Astro Boy" (2009)

Starring Freddie Highmore, Kristen Bell and Nicholas Cage
Written by Timothy Harris and David Bowers
Directed by David Bowers

"Astro Boy," based on the anime of the same name, is a CG-animated film from Imagi Studios, the same folks responsible for 2007's "TMNT" Ninja Turtles CG film.  Like that movie, "Astro Boy" features fine animated action sequences and voice work, but plotting issues and some flat humor keep it from being anything truly special.

Toby (Freddie Highmore) is a young genius, the son of Dr. Tenma (Nicholas Cage), head of the Science Ministry of Metro City.  Metro City rests high up in the sky on a floating mountain above the surface of the earth, a paradise city in the clouds.  The people of Metro City don't have much, if any, contact with those who dwell on the surface.  One day, Toby attends a demonstration of a new power source discovered by his father's friend, Dr. Elefun (Bill Nighy).  Elefun has managed to snag part of a dying star from space and separate it into two elements: a blue "positive" core and a red "negative" core.  

The government, led by the greedy President Stone (Donald Sutherland) plans to use these cores to power "The Peacekeeper", a robotic war machine that will attack the surface and start a war to drive up the president's approval ratings during a critical election season.  When the Peacekeeper goes nuts after loading the red core into itself, Toby is killed in the ensuing chaos.

Grief stricken, Tenma builds a robot duplicate of his son, nearly indestructible and incredibly strong.  He powers it with the blue positive core, and uses Toby's DNA to program the boy's memories into the new robot body.  Unfortunately, Tenma comes to feel that no matter how alike they may seem, this new version is not his son, and sends the boy away.  Stone, enraged at Tenma and Elefun's deception, demands that the boy be captured. 

Toby ends up exiled to the surface where he meets a scrappy band of kids led by Cora (ultra-sexy Kristen Bell) and tells them he's a human boy who ran away.  Cora and the other kids live with Ham Egg (Nathan Lane) a robot repairman who seems kindly at first.  Now redubbed "Astro" by the other kids, Toby helps Ham Egg create the ultimate robot for the 'robot games', which he discovers is actually a gladiatorial contest to the death.  Unfortunately, Ham Egg discovers Astro's true nature and forces him to compete in the games, revealing everything to Cora and the other kids.  This allows Stone to locate Astro, and sends in the military to retrieve the blue core.  This leads to a massive final confrontation between the Peacekeeper and Astro which will decide the fate of Metro City.

The problem with "Astro Boy" is that the writers clearly know where they want to go, but not how to get there.  As such, they conveniently manufacture things to happen regardless of how little sense it might end up making.  Tenma discards Astro seemingly on a whim, talking about how 'different' he seems, and yet the characterization is entirely the same.  The only difference is that Astro is totally confused as to why his father is acting like a total douche towards him.  Only Elefun seems to think that Astro is special and worth loving and keeping around.

Later, Stone implants the Peacekeeper with the red core once again, claiming that "It's a robot; it'll do whatever I say" even though he knows that isn't true.  We're also not given much reason as to why he's so obsessed with obtaining the blue core.  My guess is that he thinks the Peacekeeper will be easier to control with the blue core powering it rather than the red, but since this is never state in the film, all we can do is guess.

The high points of the film are definitely its animation and voice cast.  Nicholas Cage is surprisingly good as Tenma, bringing some excellent emotion and good comic timing to the role.  Kristen Bell is great as Cora, even though the role is somewhat slight.  Still, she's got the sass and the emotion during the few moments when it counts.  Donald Sutherland doesn't fare as well as the others.  He slips in and out of that flat, distanced voice that many actors struggle with when doing animation.  It's a lot harder to act in a soundbooth with a microphone than it is on a set with real live people, and that can often be a big problem.  Sutherland isn't able to overcome it save for a few good moments here or there where he manages to find the right expressiveness. 

The animation is quite fine, with the characters and settings given smooth, almost painterly, detail.  The movement of the characters is particularly impressive, fluid and slightly exaggerated but also quite lifelike at times.  Astro gets to put on lots of comic book poses that don't look entirely ridiculous.  Again, the writing becomes an issue in that Astro isn't given much opportunity throughout the film to use his abilities much more than just jetting around really fast.  He gets knocked around quite a bit, but thankfully the movie isn't long enough to let us get truly bored with the fact that the action sequences get a little repetitive by the end. 

And then there's the end... the writers want to show Astro having accepted his role as a hero and have some kind of punchy cool comic book ending, but it feels tacked on and jammed in right at the moment of emotional closure for the characters.  Moments after the Peacekeeper is defeated, a giant alien squid thing arrives and starts wrecking the city and Astro takes off to fight it.  Literally moments.  The people are still picking their way through the rubble, and suddenly BOOM, giant alien, roll credits. 

So "Astro Boy" is a mildly entertaining diversion.  It features a great voice cast and fine animation, but the script is a right hand that doesn't know what the left is doing.  It's awkward and discombobulated, which really flattens what could have been a really cool animated sci-fi superhero flick.