Whenever you are adapting something from another medium to film, such as a novel or comic book, it can be tricky. Then if you include the added pressure of also adapting that novel or comic from another culture into a version that an American and a worldwide audience can relate to and enjoy, you’re talking about something that can be quite difficult to pull off. But the new CGI Animated film, “Astro Boy,” does just that, it takes all the magic and wonder of the original Manga Comic and brings it to life in this thrilling and fun family film.
“Astro Boy” began in 1952 as a Japanese Manga series and eventually became a popular television show in 1963; which was the first Japanese series to embodied the aesthetic that is now known as Anime. It’s been named on both the Top 50 Greatest Comic Characters and 100 Greatest Animated Series of all-time lists. This film acts as a jumping off point for new fans as it is a retelling of the classic origin story with a few adjustments made to make the film more accessible to today’s family audience. The result is a fun and exciting new animated adventure with a strong moral message that will please old and new fans alike.
The film is set in the futuristic Metro City and introduces us to Toby, the enthusiastic young son of the brilliant robotic scientist, Dr. Tenma played by Nicolas Cage. Metro City is a floating city that rests way up in the clouds over looking the desolate surface world and is inhabited by robot servants. While testing a very risky new robotic weapon for the war-hungry President (Donald Sutherland) Toby is accidentally killed crushing Dr. Tenma’s heart. Grief stricken the scientist creates a robot likeness of Toby; which is named Astro Boy (Freddie Highmore). However the Doctor quickly realizes that the robot will never be able to truly replace Toby so he banishes him from Metro City. Now all alone on the cold and scary surface world, Astro Boy finds acceptance with a group of kids led by the beautiful Cora (Kristen Bell), who live with Hamegg (Nathan Lane), the ringmaster of the popular gladiator-style robot fights. Unaware that he is a robot until he is sent to the surface world Astro Boy is ashamed and looks for acceptance when he meets Cora by trying to protect his robot secret, but when Hamegg finds out, he is forced to compete in the games. However, when Astro Boy discovers the true range of his abilities and realizes that Metro City’s President has unleashed an evil robot that will soon destroy the city, he returns to save his home and reconcile with the father who rejected him.
The film is well directed by David Bowers who is no stranger to animation having worked on “Chicken Run” and “Shark Tale” before directing his first feature “Flushed Away.” The script by Timothy Harris is tight and packs in all the core details of the Manga series while opening up the world for a new audience. Most of the voice acting is excellent, especially Donald Sutherland who is wonderfully over-the-top as the evil President. As is Bill Nighy who serves as the heart of the film as the sweet assistant to Tenma who can see the doctor’s mistake from a mile away and is the only human who seems to care about the robot-boy. Freddie Highmore and Kristen Bell work well as the lead character and his love interest as do Nathan Lane who lends comic relief as the Fagin-like carnival barker.
If there is a weak link in the voice acting in the film unfortunately I have to say it is Nicolas Cage. As polarizing an actor as he is, I really like him and even like his off-screen persona but it is that slow, and semi-pretentious drawl that has become his trademark that does him a disservice in the film. Every time you here Dr. Tenma speak you are quickly reminded that Mr. Cage is there and it takes you out of the movie and away from believing his character. I don’t necessarily blame Cage for this, his voice is his voice, yet as an actor he should have been more aware of this when he took the part and perhaps the film’s creators should have taken this into account as well. That being said, I understand how important it is to have an actor of Cage’s caliber in a film like this and I think he does an adequate job with what he can.
Finally, it is the true underlying messages in this movie that make it really work. What Bowers did that is quite smart is fill the movie with ideas that any audience, in any culture can relate to such as family, father and son issues, dealing with loss, finding your place in the world, pollution, war, technology and even segregation. The fact that the film is able to create a fun and exciting new world while making you think about these issues makes it worth seeing on many levels. The CGI animation is equally breathtaking and the mood and tone of the film perfectly reflects the original Japanese series. “Astro Boy” is an example of the best kind of film adaptation, one that takes the very best aspects of the original property and makes it come alive in a new way for a new audience without loosing the spirit and tone that made it popular in the first place.