It appears I have an Astro Boy sized hole in my pop culture knowledge. The character dates back to 1952 when Manga God Osamu Tezuka created the robot boy character in print before spinning him off to a successful Japanese television program in the 1960s. Since then he’s been featured in several more television shows, was listed on Empire magazine’s 50 Greatest Comic Characters list and was named Japan’s envoy for overseas safety. I didn’t know any of that, and after spending a grueling ninety minutes with the new Astro Boy film, I’m not interested in learning any more.
The new film is one of those dreaded North American reworkings of Asian pop culture. In it a brilliant scientist, Dr. Tenma (voiced by Nicolas Cage), loses his son to a tragic accident. Unable to cope with his loss he builds a robot in the image of his late son. Tenma doesn’t realize how creepy an idea this is until it is too late and the young robot feelings of his own. Unable to please his creator / father Astro Boy (Freddie Highmore)—complete with an astounding array of robot abilities—sets off to make his own mark on the world. Searching for acceptance he falls in with a crowd of teenage anti-robot mercenaries led by Cora (Kristen Bell), does battle with Ham Egg (Nathan Lane), a PT Barnum type who forces bots to battle one another, before returning home to save the day and hopefully earn the respect of his father.
I was paid to watch Astro Boy and as such had to stay through to the end. If not, however, for the pay cheque and professional ethics it would have taken a seat belt to keep me in my chair through to the closing credits. Astro Boy’s deadly mix of bad writing, tepid action and uninspired voice work sinks the film despite the character’s long and storied history.
Voices for animated features are taped individually and then, through the magic of editing and sound design, spliced together to sound seamless—except in the case of Astro Boy. The voices seem like individual components and even when they do meld together there is no spark. Nicolas Cage, in particular, seems to be doing some pay cheque acting here, sounding as though he is reading from a telephone book and not a script.
The visuals follow suit. Dull video game-esque renderings may amuse the eye of very young viewers, but anyone who laid eyeballs on Up, Kung Fu Panda or any of the other more recent interesting animated films will be under whelmed.
Astro Boy is a disappointment. It may entertain tots but older fans of the character—and fans of good animated films—beware.