October 29, 2009

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Astro Boy (PG)
A robot boy tries to find his place in the world in Astro Boy, a strange and moderately disturbing entry in the roundy-edged world of two-dimensional animation.

Toby (voice of Freddie Highmore) is a crackerjack student who has an interest in science, just like his inventor dad Dr. Tenma (Nicholas Cage). And science is a big deal where they live in Metro City; their whole world is really just an island of land hovering above the Earth’s polluted surface. Issues like powering this floating world and protecting it from possible attack by the surface-dwellers (which is likely a threat inflated by the city’s more corrupt leaders) are big deals, so when Toby hears that his dad is about to unveil a new weapon, he can’t wait for permission and decides to sneak into the lab to see it. The scientists want to give the newly designed massive robot a power source called the “blue core” that will make it a kind, defensive machine. But the warmongering President Stone (Donald Sutherland) wants to give it a “red core” that will make it aggressive. (Yes, yes, red, blue. How clever, movie, won’t the elementary schoolers love the political commentary.) Their disagreement causes an accident which, poof, causes the end of the sneaking-a-peek Toby (that will teach you to like science).

Crazed with grief, Dr. Tenma builds a robot replacement of his son, giving this new Toby the same memories and personality as the human original and the blue core as a power source. But soon Tenma decides the robot just won’t do, and Toby is kicked out on his own, hunted by Stone and unsure of what powers his metal body possesses. When he falls down from Metro City, Toby — now calling himself Astro — suddenly finds himself on the scruffy surface, making uneasy friendships with a gang of parentless kids and their robot-repairing Fagin named Hamegg (Nathan Lane).

And then, in the last third, or so, of the movie, two giant robots fight each other.

My nine-year-old movie companion squirmed, did a kicking thing with his feet and made the occasional mouth-popping boredom noise during the movie. He seemed to get more interested toward the end, when there was action and explosions and giant things bashing stuff. Afterward, it seemed to be that final 20 or so minutes that he remembered most fondly. He did reach back to the beginning to ask me what happened to the human version of Toby — uhm, vaporized, I said vaguely (matters of life and death felt, at that moment, above the pay-grade of my stepparent self) — and he replied something like “huh” with a whatever-y shrug. I couldn’t tell if this would be one of those things keeping him awake at night or if it was something that was ultimately irrelevant to how he felt about the story. I will say that if preciousness-of-all-sentient-things was where the movie wanted him to go, he wasn’t having any of it. In fact, all the stuff about the second-class-ness of the surface world, the capricious use of power, the true meaning of family and the unfair treatment of robots (who are servants in the floating world until they’re discarded to the surface) seemed to elicit in him the kid equivalent of checking his Blackberry in the middle of a staff meeting.

And I consider myself lucky. What if all that fatherly abandonment and kid death had actually made an impact on him? Astro Boy seems to have the potential to scare the crap out of all the children it doesn’t bore. There are some deeply scary parts to those classic Disney movies too — Bambi, Dumbo — but they have both humor and a kind of sweetness to balance out the fairy tale fears. Astro Boy is really only emotionally effective when it has Dr. Tenma telling the believing-he’s-a-real-Toby Astro Boy that he doesn’t want him around anymore. What’s the takeaway from that for the five-year-old whose parents unwittingly think “a cartoon, that should be safe”?

Astro Boy has a neat, low-rent Jetsons-meets-WALL-E look that could make for a visually interesting half-hour TV show or possibly, with a different plot, a solidly satisfactory movie. But this movie mixes heavy ho-humness with moments of potentially nightmare-inducing emotional terror. Here’s one case were we’d all be better off if the movie had dropped its dark Pinocchio-of-the-future vision and cut right to the robot fight. C-

Rated PG for some action and peril and brief mild language. Directed by David Bowers and written by Bowers and Timothy Harris (from comics by Osamu Tezuka), Astro Boy is an hour and 34 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Summit Entertainment.