Every month or so, we read about how some great anime title of the past is being considered for a Hollywood remake. At the top of the queue are always Akira and Robotech, and occasionally whispers of a reversioning of Evangelion or Battle Angel Alita surface. Most of us take these reports with a sense of dread, seeing how Hollywood has screwed up countless American comic book properties. If they can't get something from this culture right, how are they going to bridge the gap and make something that doesn't belong on the straight-to-video shelf?
Issues of rights, directors, and such keep most of these from happening. But with Astro Boy, we get a taste of what a Japanese-free remake of a classic anime property can look like. It's not live-action, of course; it's a computer-generated whiz-bang, and it looks as strong as any recent Dreamworks entry. Its box-office take was mediocre, to say the least, but box office rarely indicates whether a movie is actually good. So now that it's on video, is it worth a trip to the Redbox? I say yes, though with reservations.
Dr. Tenma is crushed. His son Toby, an uber-intelligent child much like himself, is dead, victim of a scientific test gone horribly awry. Filled with guilt and shame over his lack of parenting, Tenma creates a robotic version of Toby from DNA left in a strand of hair and gives him Toby's memories. As far as the robot is concerned, he's Toby...but Dad knows the difference. Eventually, in a fit of despair the robot was never meant to see, Tenma rejects him. Left to his own devices, he winds up in a pile of android rubble that sits under Metro City, his home. But in that junk heap, he finds robotic and human friends alike and takes the name Astro. Eventually, he will return to Metro City and face his biggest challenge -- a military leader determined to have control of the energy source that powers Astro so that his own "peacemaker" robot will be all-powerful.
Being an American project at its core, the dubbing cast had the ability to improvise as they worked, and so there is a bit of playfulness to the English script. Thankfully, there are no direct cultural jokes (a trend that has gotten very tired in American animation), and the creators brought in some real comic talents (Nathan Lane, Eugene Levy, Ryan Styles, and David Alan Grier among them). Freddie Highmore and Kristen Bell do good work in their roles as Astro and Cora, a girl who leads a bunch of orphaned children in the junk heap. Unfortunately, their work is undermined by a surprisingly awful voicing of Dr. Tenma by Nicholas Cage, who threatens to utterly derail the first twenty minutes of the film. Now I'm a Cage fan; since Raising Arizona over twenty years ago, I've found in watchable in even the worst drek. But here, his work is listless, as if he was stoned during the recording. Cage as Tenma shows little to no emotion even when he realizes his only son has been vaporized. I never felt like this man would have bothered creating a robotic replacement son, and that really weakens the opening act.
But there's another core problem with the movie opening the way it does, and it's the careless treatment of the death of a young child. Death has been in films for children for a long time; I'm not arguing that. The deaths of Old Yeller and Bambi's mother shocked generations. But in both of those instances, there was clear context...and a separation from personal reality. Killing a child is a very serious thing in any film. My seven-year-old, though he wouldn't verbalize it, became tearful when Toby died; he's sensitive to that sort of thing, but I imagine many children would find it difficult to understand at very least. Astro is not the embodiment of Tenma's son; he's a re-creation right down to the memories, but he's missing the soul. While you could argue that Astro has his own soul, Toby is dead...not just killed in a car accident like in the original, but blasted to smithereens. It was disturbing to an adult, so for a child...enough said. This opening put a damper on the proceedings, and I wish the movie had started with the creation of Astro with Toby's death handled perhaps in flashback. Add to Toby's death Tenma's rejection of Astro, and you have recipes for nightmares. It made my son nervous that something else that awful was going to happen.
Thankfully, it didn't, and the film becomes a lot of fun. There are plenty of recycled bits from other movies, but they gel together well into an interesting stew...and in a film that revives a property this old, it's hard to tell who stole from whom. It's not boring, and it ends when the story is done, clocking in at only about an hour and twenty minutes before the credits. Some story elements are hoary, such as the military loony as a stand-in for Bush (even though his presidency was history long before this hit theatres). Nevertheless, Donald Sutherland does a great job in the part, making what would have been treacle much more entertaining. There are clever bits throughout and a few good laugh-aloud moments. The action bits aren't constant, but they are thrilling without being overdone.
One could argue that Tezuka would have been disappointed in this variation on his character, and I'm of a mixed mind about this. Tezuka was environmentally aware and consistently against war, but he used violence to tell his stories at times, and he wasn't above a lowbrow gag here and there. While there are some cheap jokes -- Astro having machine guns built into his rear, for instance -- that isn't beyond Tezuka, though I found them unnecessary. One might wonder about the relative lack of commentary about the scrap pile, how Metro City's beauty is only at the expense of the trashing of the surface. There's also enough violence to make one question if Tezuka would have approved. But at the same time, Astro is very consistent in his stand that he wants to hurt neither human nor machine, and he refuses to fight on more than one occasion. He saves good guys and bad guys alike. This is Astro Boy; while he differs in certain ways from his original incarnation, he's also as much the same as we can see in an eighty-minute motion picture.
Ah, but is it anime? It would be easy to say no. The animation was done (mostly) by a studio in Hong Kong, and there are far more American, Chinese, and Korean names on this production than Japanese. (In fact, during the credits, I only saw a handful of names that might even be Japanese.) At the same time, this is a prime anime property based on the work of one of the foremost experts in the art, and it is still animated. Where do we draw the line? It's more than "inspired by an anime" or "anime-related." It's a grey area. I'll say this...those who are interested in anime should see it regardless of who made it. Maybe we need a new term to describe this sort of thing?
But that's not the main question for today. The main question is, should you see Astro Boy? I'd say yes. If you're over the age of ten, you'll probably enjoy it without the issues younger children will face. Adults who saw the original will get a kick out of it. Anime fans should take a look at an adaptation of a Japanese work to see that it can be done without too much damage to the source material. So yeah, pick it up well aware of its limitations, and you should enjoy this reboot of the first atomic boy.
Astro Boy -- violence (including the death of a child), mild rude humor, rated PG -- B