The old masters of Japanese anime seem to have hit a really bad patch. First Mamoru Oshii came a-cropper with his recent sequel to his 1995 classic “Ghost in the Shell.” Now Katsuhiro Otomo, whose 1988 “Akira” was one of the granddaddys of the movement, offers “Steamboy,” a visually extravagant but narratively dreary attempt to transplant the genre’s ethos into a period piece. The picture–reportedly the most expensive animated movie to come out of Japan–offers stunning background art but characters that are drab–not just visually monotonous (stiffly drawn and washed-out because of the color palette used to approximate a period feel) but either dull or strident in terms of their personalities. (So these characters are colorless both literally and figuratively.) Set in Victorian London and featuring a youngster as its putative hero, the picture is so misguided that it actually makes Disney’s “Atlantis: The Lost Continent,” with which it shares some of those elements, seem almost good. With apologies to Jude Law, whose recent film featuring pale real actors against spectacular phony backgrounds was such a flop, just call this “Private Pipsqueak and the World of Yesterday.”
The story is set in an imaginary nineteenth-century England where two groups of inventors–a private entity called the O’Hara Foundation which, it’s eventually revealed, has ambitions to sell state-of-the-art weaponry to all the nations of the world, and a government-affiliated outfit–compete to create steam-powered mechanisms of incredible size and power. A young boy named Ray Steam, with a budding appetite for research on engines, is living with his grandmother and siblings while his father Eddie and grandfather Lloyd work for the corporation. He receives from Lloyd a strange “steam ball” which agents of the Foundation soon arrive to retrieve. Ray escapes them, but in trying to deliver the device to a government scientist, he’s captured and taken to the O’Hara lab at the London Exhibition, where he finds his father and grandfather at loggerheads, the former working for the Foundation’s mercenary ends and the latter trying to throw a monkey wrench into their schemes. Also on hand is the daughter of the Foundation’s owner, improbably named Scarlett, who’s intended by Otomo as a romantic foil for Ray but comes across as a spoiled, insufferable brat. What follows is an orgy of animated chases, explosions and action as an O’Hara demonstration of its capabilities leads to a mini-war between their forces and those of the Empire and the O’Hara exhibition turns into sort of a nineteenth-century version of the Death Star, flying ominously above London while Grandpa Lloyd and Ray, now outfitted with a Captain Video-style flying suit and goggles, attempt to bring the behemoth down.
This is all really silly, juvenile stuff, with a broad-stroke anti-technology message that’s belied by the movie’s own fascination with steam-pumping, inexorable engines of destruction. It might have been enjoyable if the artwork were more attractive and the script and performances more subtle. But though the backgrounds are amazingly detailed and lovingly drawn, the character animation is thoroughly pedestrian (Ray in particular lacks any special qualities, and Grandpa is notable mostly for a frozen grimace on his face, which is topped by tufts of white hair that look positively electrified). And besides the general absurdity of the plot as a whole, the dialogue proves one long blast of hot air, especially since it’s so shrilly delivered, particularly by stentorian Patrick Stewart as the crazed Lloyd and whoever does the English voice of the haughty Scarlett, who as written seems to be competing in a Little Miss Bitch contest. Alfred Molina lends his dulcet tones to Ray’s father Eddie, but it’s a comparatively anonymous turn, and Anna Paquin does nothing with Ray’s lines. It probably would have been better to leave thinfs in Japanese and offer subtitles instead.
“Steamboy,” one supposes, is intended as an imaginative commentary on the dangers posed by misapplied technology, done up in the form of an ersatz historical tale with old Saturday-afternoon serial overtones. But in this overblown realization, naive in every sense but the purely visual, the mixture comes across as the worst sort of blather–loud, tediously repetitive and ultimately inane.