What It Is
Astro Boy (Freddie Highmore) is a robot with rockets in his legs, weapons for arms, and a literally sharp hairdo. Created by the brilliant and slightly selfish Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage), Astro believes that he’s a real boy, because he carries Tenma’s dead son’s memories… and oh yes, the doctor neglects to tell him he’s actually powered by a glowing blue power source in his chest. It doesn’t help that this “core” is also wanted by the diabolical General Stone (Donald Sutherland) for use in a war machine. Discovered by the evil Stone, Astro is forced to leave floating Metro City for Earth, the wasteland below.
Here Astro meets a band of orphaned children (including the very cute Cora (Kristen Bell) and their Fagan-like leader, Ham Egg (Nathan Lane). He also learns a little about robot politics (they’re treated like slaves, then junked unceremoniously), especially when he’s forced to fight other robots in front of a crowd of roaring, insatiable humans. Now understanding the need for kindness and loyalty, Astro becomes a worthy defender of the very people who have rejected him back in Metro City, saving the day and paving the way for a sequel.
Why It’s Fun
The animation is bright and the action scenes are mostly zippy (owing to those rockets in Astro’s legs), and the moral is emphatically optimistic. Children and their parents will be encouraged to talk about tolerance, friendship, and even redemption, by movie’s end. Still, the film is just adequately CGIed, and conjures an origin story that is mostly old news, full of storylines and characters you’ve seen before. Even those viewers who don’t know the original Japanese manga (1951) or several animated series that made it to the States (1963-1966, 1980, or again in 2003) will recognize pieces of Pinocchio, WALL-E, Frankenstein, I, Robot, Oliver Twist, Gladiator, Iron Man, and touches of 1984, Transformers, and Terminator too. Catching all these references can be fun, but they also suggest a dearth of invention.
Who’s Going To Love It
Younger viewers will appreciate the noise and the color, and Astro is a genuinely nice hero, eager to please others and discover his “destiny.” For the most part this is a very regular children’s cartoon, fast-moving and slight, with superficial problems and solutions set up in mere minutes (except for some extended fight scenes, especially at the end). Like most origin stories, this one spends time establishing relationships between characters while looking forward to hoped-for next installments. Sometimes you feel like they’re treading water, like Astro and his friends are going through motions before they get moving on another, perhaps more original project.
What To Be Aware Of
Parents should be aware that Astro’s birth/creation is premised on the tragic death of Tenma’s son Toby—an event that takes place off-screen but is preceded by a scary robot attack on the boy and followed by intense grieving by the father. (There is no mention of Toby’s mom.) The movie also includes an overt political point, arguing against the use of warm-making in order to engineer an election win (as General Stone attempts, using language and tactics that plainly allude to the recent Bush Administration’s war on terror). The violent scenes—when Stone’s robot minions chase and attack Astro, shooting at him, blowing him up, and doing their best all around to flatten and dismantle him—are brashly cartoony but sometimes harrowing nonetheless. The humans are mean to their robot servants (Tenma has a butler sort of robot, voiced by Eugene Levy, that both he and his son take for granted). A couple of death and near-death scenes are potentially upsetting to very young viewers, as is a scene when a very big bad robot goes after Cora and other kids, screaming in fear in a hover-car. And those kids on Earth have been trained to hate robots for being different from them. Thus they are alternately very friendly (when they think Astro’s a boy) and very cruel (when they learn he’s a robot).
5 out of 10
Director: David Bowers
Cast: Freddie Highmore, Kristen Bell, Nicolas Cage, Donald Sutherland, Eugene Levy, Nathan Lane
Studio: Summit Entertainment
US Premiere: October 23, 2009
UK Premiere: January 29, 2010