Why Astro Boy fizzles when it should be flying

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

Even if it's faithfully based on decades of cartoon and manga mythology, Astro Boy is a recklessly grown-up movie. Unlike last week's equally mature Where the Wild Things Are, whose metaphors and deeper meanings can at least be hidden in the furry fun of its larger-than-life characters, director David Bowers' adaptation of the iconic animated character deals with disloyalty, decommission and, most often, death, and if those ideas aren't expressed literally, they manifest themselves with violent physicality.

But the bigger problem with the film is that its examination of such weighty themes doesn't seem to have much of a point, or at least not one that kids will be happy to take home with them—all of which makes Astro Boy a mediocre misfire and a lackluster addition to the year's animated fare.

Freddie Highmore (The Spiderwick Chronicles) plays Toby, a precociously gifted little boy who is accidentally killed when Gen. Stone (Donald Sutherland), Metro City's warmongering president, unleashes the destructive power of a new crime-fighting robot called the Peacemaker. Inconsolable, Toby's father, Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage), quite literally rebuilds his son, but rejects the robot duplicate when it doesn't resemble the boy's personality and interests. In the meantime, Toby begins to discover some of his newfound android abilities, but soon finds himself pursued by Gen. Stone, who wants to dissect him and use his internal energy source in order to get himself re-elected.

Toby eventually ends up back on Earth, where the denizens of Metro City have discarded their robotic servants and a ragtag band of orphans scours their remains for spare parts at the behest of Hamegg (Nathan Lane). But when Stone gets absorbed into the body of his new Peacemaker and starts laying waste to the Metro City landscape, it's up to Toby, now renamed Astro Boy, to stop him and restore balance to the once-peaceful floating city.

Even in its opening scenes, which play like an instructional filmstrip, Astro Boy subversively constructs a world where robots are essentially indentured servants and even slaves rather than companions and helpers; when a droid gets smashed to bits by a passing car, for example, female voice-over cheerfully reassures us, "Don't worry—the street will get cleaned!" But the problem is that this is just the first of many ideas that never gets fully explored, and it operates on a more sophisticated level than kids will understand, if they care at all; when you literally vaporize your main character in the opening scene of the film, sociological subtext takes a back seat to consoling your preteen companion and explaining that he'll be back by the time reel two starts.

Notwithstanding the movie's general message of compassion for all creatures, the bigger question is this: What are kids supposed to take away from a story where a kid is repeatedly rejected because he doesn't like the things his father wants? One supposes there's an alternate message in the midst of Astro Boy's soul-searching—namely, that you have to find the place where you fit in, and sometimes that's not with your own family—but is that one really any more reassuring? Astro spends the majority of the story, even when he's alive, competing for attention with his father's work, and it feels like a false reward when Tenma accepts him as his son only after he has literally fought to save the inhabitants of Metro City from certain death.

Meanwhile, as Tenma, Nicolas Cage gives the worst in a series of bad voice performances, and inadvertently reiterates the value of getting competent actors for animated roles rather than simply enlisting A-list names to enhance a film's marquee value. Though one expects that he ran through an entire gamut of reactions and inflections for each line reading, Cage's performance is egregiously under-responsive given the dramatic dimensions of negligence, grief, selfishness and finally redemption that Tenma goes through. Similarly, Bill Nighy appears to have slept through his recording sessions, barely registering a pulse in Tenma's supposedly passionate and sensitive colleague Dr. Elefun. In fact, Highmore does the majority of the movie's heavy lifting, working desperately to create an authentic and sympathetic character out of Astro despite the rest of the film's lethargic momentum.

Finally, there's the design of the characters, and the action sequences, which are muscular and shockingly violent, even if some of them look pretty cool. Personally I was reminded of the same kind of breakneck energy that George Lucas tapped into during his chase scenes in the Star Wars prequels, in terms of both the look and the action itself; but unfortunately, even with its wealth of odd and interestingly shaped characters and creatures (I liked the idea of gigantic robots fighting tiny ones and vice versa, and human profiles of all different dimensions), the violent and uncompromising way in which Astro squares off against his many adversaries just plain seemed too tough for kids to take.

Mind you, I don't have kids, so I don't pretend to know (and wouldn't generalize about) what they are capable of understanding, appreciating or enjoying, much less surviving. But even as a purely accurate retelling of the character's origin story, I felt like Astro Boy needed something else, if not something altogether new, to connect the tragedy of his conception with the appetites and attitudes of modern audiences, and not in the purely visceral way that it's done here. (And mentioning Kant's Critique of Pure Reason doesn't count either.)

Overall, this installment in the character's saga feels more like one of the new Godzilla movies that came out in recent years, or a straight-to-DVD spinoff of some other existing series, rather than any real movie in its own right; by building upon a fertile foundation of character mythology but forgetting how to combine new concepts with those that are established, Astro Boy ultimately fizzles when it should be flying.