The original Japanese manga, which began in 1951, and the television series based on it, which became the first Japanese show exported to the U.S. in 1963, had long and happy lives. And there have been plenty of incarnations of “Astro Boy” since. But that’s not likely to be the case with this new but not improved version, which is decked out in snazzy computer-generated animation but comes across as more rote than exhilarating.
The script, cobbled together from the many variants of the story that have emerged over the past six decades, begins with a child’s death. Little Toby (voiced by Freddie Highmore), the son of robotics genius Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage), lives with his (apparently widowed) father in the airborne Metro City, which flies high about the surface of a devastated earth. (The only contact with the planet is that the citizens use it as a dumping-ground for their discarded robots.) But Toby’s killed when he sneaks into the lab where his father is demonstrating a new warrior robot for the President (Donald Sutherland), a villainous creep running for reelection who recklessly inserts a terrible and untested power source into the creature, which runs amuck and literally blasts the boy to nothingness in the process.
One of the tyke’s hairs remains on his cap, however, and the devastated Tenma uses its DNA to install Toby’s consciousness into a robot he builds in the dead boy’s image, but with amazing powers. Unfortunately, the experiment doesn’t work out, and Tenma tosses the robot Toby down to earth, where he’s adopted by a gang of orphan kids and their Fagin-like “father” Hamegg (Nathan Lane) until the money-grubbing man discovers the boy is a robot and forces him to compete in robot-on-robot gladiatorial combat. And though he wins, the evil President eventually takes him captive in order to extract his power source for his own nefarious purposes. Fortunately, Tenma sees the light and saves Astro, setting off a big final confrontation between him and the evil Prexy, who’s been transformed into a behemoth that looks too powerful for even our hero to defeat. He does anyway, of course—though he’s drained of power in the process and once again requires resuscitation, like E.T. Inevitably, the battle brings Metro City and Planet Earth together again.
This is one weird tale, part “Pinocchio” and “E.T.” but also part “Oliver Twist” and “Transformers.” The meshing of such disparate elements itself makes for a strange brew, but the darkness of so much of it—Toby’s death, Tenma’s cruel treatment of the robot, the whole political subplot about using war to bolster one’s reelection chances (is this intended as a commentary on recent American history?)—makes it even more so. That might not matter to the kiddies it’s aimed at (older fans, on the other hand, will probably be bothered by what they’ll consider the extreme alteration of the original)—the action is energetic and the images vibrant enough to hold their interest—but perhaps it will bother their parents some. To compensate some simply slapstick characters are thrown in to lighten the mood—robotic window spray and squeegee, some earthbound robot “revolutionaries” who are more like three stooges, a few overmatched opponents for AB in the gladiatorial ring, a doggie robot that very much resembles R2D2.
What the picture offers to adults in terms of wit is pretty threadbare. There are repeated references to Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics, particularly that forbidding robots to do harm to humans, and nods to some literary classics that Tenma has Toby/Astro study, like Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” and Da Vinci’s sketchbooks. Otherwise, however, this is pretty straightforward kiddie fare aimed at pre-teen boys. Just think Mighty Mouse with gelled-up hair and no rodent ears.
“Astro Boy” has survived a lot over the years, in terms of both cartoon opponents and creative misjudgments. He’ll surely survive this mediocre movie, but the sequels that the ending not-so-subtly implies will probably not be forthcoming.