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February 4, 2010 | by  | in Film |
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Astro Boy

film

A lot of animation studios in America seem to complacently accept Pixar’s strangle-hold on good animated films. Dreamworks Animation Studios has only ever been bothered with the bottom line, Blue Sky Studios hit paydirt with Ice Age and has barely bothered to extend itself, and few other animation studios exist in the USA that release anything other than weak CGI pap that cynically corners a section of the market for profit.

It’s incredibly rare to find an American studio willing to actually go into battle against Pixar with challenging themes and a universally appealing story to back up the pretty pictures and monopolising of children, to shoot for the hearts and minds of the masses as well as their wallets. This makes the arrival of Astro Boy all the more peculiar—the animation studio behind the film, Imagi Animation Studios, comes with next-to-no pedigree in thoughtful animated features, only producing a direct-to-video Highlander sequel and TMNT before the arrival of this adaptation of the legendary Japanese manga series. But for all of the film’s problems—and believe me, there are problems with this film—it’s hard to fault it for actually trying to be an intelligent, thematically-rich film that appeals to a wide audience.

From the opening minutes, in which Dr. Tenma’s son Toby is killed and is replaced by the titular robot-Toby, Astro Boy differentiates itself from the pack by actually having some balls. Toby is killed right on screen, and the resulting construction of robot-Toby by a grief-crazed Tenma is a surprisingly moving sequence—not spectacular, but it gets you right when you expect an animated film of its pedigree not to. Then, director David Bowers pushes us right into the emotional fray, so to speak, with Tenma struggling to accept his son’s robot replacement, as superficially, the boy is perfect, but he’s different from the original Toby, and he only amplifies Tenma’s grief.

It may not be Up­ levels of emotional power, but Astro Boy is shockingly effective in soliciting its desired response. The sad faces that opening gets are earned, damn it, just like the musings on environmentalism, ideological fanaticism, capitalism and humanity’s relationship with what we create are actually more than surface deep. Most effective is a critique of conservative capitalism that is not-so-subtly couched in the character of President Stone.

Stone is a rabid psychopath who believes that starting wars is the way to win elections, but the film goes a step further when he makes a giant robot known as the Peacekeeper into a war machine that absorbs everything around it, destroying infrastructure and livelihoods in a furious grab for personal power, thus crafting a surprisingly effective metaphor for the potentially destructive power of unregulated capitalism.

The other issues aren’t as well thought-out, however—the environmental angle is introduced in the opening video cheerfully touting the awesomeness of “our robot friends” and then returned to sporadically throughout the film, but never dealt with in-depth; the relationship between humanity and what we create becomes intertwined with a more effective, but more kiddie-friendly, theme of being yourself and finding family where you make it. Regardless of this, though, for the film to start out on such a myriad of thematic paths and follow through with them shows some astonishing cajones on behalf of Bowers and his Imagi team, even if those thematic paths are followed through with to mixed success.

On the other fronts, Astro Boy is fairly standard holiday animated fare. The animation is sharp and stylish, Metro City in particular a glorious piece of animation to behold, slick and complex as it is, almost like a futuristic Laputa. Bowers has a good eye for action, and the film is punctuated with well-realised, entertaining fight sequences and chase sequences.

The voice acting is a mixed bag, with Nathan Lane’s gloriously hammy performance as robot mechanic Hamegg and Kristen Bell’s solid work as young Cora being offset by the blandness of Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage and Bill Nighy as Astro/Toby, Dr. Tenma and Dr. Elefun respectively. The dialogue is your fairly standard kid’s animation fare, with some awful lines breaking up the flow of competence (“I’ve got machine guns…in my butt!”). In fact, if it weren’t for Bowers’ boldness in attempting to tackle some seriously hefty themes, this would be another disposable piece of entertainment that nobody would blink an eye at.

As it is, Astro Boy poses that most interesting of quandaries—whether to praise a film based on its ambition and its courage. In a market cluttered with half-arsed pretenders to the throne of Pixar, peddling pop culture gags and ker-razy characters like they make up for actually story-telling and thematic richness, Astro Boy seems to understand what makes Pixar great. It understands that it’s not just the gags and the good animation—it’s the characters, it’s the narrative, it’s the depth, it’s the universality of the whole thing.

In understanding this, Astro Boy aims to make it work in its own way, and while that way is never entirely successful, it is a way that makes evident an admirable heart and bravery in the filmmakers responsible. Astro Boy is a rare thing—a film that works, not because its parts come together perfectly, not because it succeeds at what it does, but because it tries something big and makes evident the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into that attempt. Calling it a noble failure seems harsh, so I’ll just settle with noble. It may not always succeed, but Astro Boy is a noble film.

3 out of 5.

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  1. The Insider says:

    >> “A lot of animation studios in America seem to complacently accept Pixar’s strangle-hold on good animated films.”

    Most American animation do not “complacently accept” Pixar’s strangle-hold. In recent years, Sony and Universal both made significant investments into this space, with mixed results.

    >> “….few other animation studios exist in the USA that release anything other than weak CGI pap that cynically corners a section of the market for profit.”

    Making an animated feature is hugely costly, and time consuming. If the costs were low, you would see a lot more animated features made. And, because it’s so costly, the executives that fund these ventures almost always avoid creative risks.

    >> “….Imagi Animation Studios, comes with next-to-no pedigree in thoughtful animated features…”

    Very few mainstream critics would describe TMNT, or Astro Boy, as “thoughtful”. There will always be a market for niche films, but that was never where Imagi wanted to go. In its initial prospectus, Imagi very clearly stated it was going after the four-quadrant family fares, with cheap Asian labor its primary competitive advantage. In this same prospectus, it never mentioned anything about making “thoughtful” movies, or its management experiences. There were pages and pages devoted to “built-in” audience, and merchandising tie-ins.

    To sum this up, Imagi was very much trying to “cynically corners a section of the market for profit”.

  2. Adam G says:

    “Most American animation do not “complacently accept” Pixar’s strangle-hold.”

    I said that they accepted their stranglehold on “good” animated films. It was basically a roundabout way of me saying that they were making shit and not trying to improve (though Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs was great, and I believe that was Sony).

    “Making an animated feature is hugely costly, and time consuming. If the costs were low, you would see a lot more animated features made. And, because it’s so costly, the executives that fund these ventures almost always avoid creative risks.”

    Does this make it right, though? I’m not arguing that it’s good business practice to take creative risks – I’m saying that taking those creative risks can produce better films. I’m not concerned with the bottom line, I’m concerned with whether the film’s good or not. Besides, it’s not like creative risks can’t produce animated films that perform well at the box office – Pixar’s entire output and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs are testament to that.

    “Very few mainstream critics would describe TMNT, or Astro Boy, as “thoughtful”.”

    Clearly I’m doing something wrong then, not agreeing with “mainstream critics” (and I don’t think I called TMNT thoughtful, and for good reason).

    “To sum this up, Imagi was very much trying to “cynically corners a section of the market for profit”.”

    While I can see your point, and as mentioned in the reviews, I can see the places where they did that, a company’s prospectus doesn’t determine whether everything they produce is going to be bad or good. Whatever Imagi’s primary business practice may actually be – and it may well be that which I despise, that puts merchandising above film quality – it doesn’t change that Astro Boy actually does try something pretty substantial beyond that. Furthermore, while the Board of Directors or whatever may have been trying to “cynically corner a section of the market for profit” – and Astro Boy is very easy to market and create merchandise for in a cynical fashion, if its awful trailer was anything to go by – I don’t think the filmmakers were trying to, and it shows.

    Also, I don’t agree that strong narrative, engaging characters and thematic richness is “niche”. Unless you meant something else by that.

  3. Joey Pottr says:

    Who the fuck are you?

  4. smackdown says:

    look at this photograph

    every time it makes me laugh

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