Tuesday, October 27, 2009



There is no question about the genesis of this film. It was made for kids. It has “10 year old” written all over it. The humor, the robots, the explosions, and the fantastic computer animation are all geared toward a young male audience. But ASTRO BOY also deals out some adult-level, existential conundrums. It falls short on many levels but has something for everyone.

ASTRO BOY is set in a future in which the earth has become so corrupt with man’s leftovers that the elite humans have made a Metro-City which floats above the surface. Trash is dumped over the side and forgotten. The movie starts with young Toby (voiced by Freddie Highmore) who is a futuristic looking Bob’s Big Boy. Toby is smart. He is knocking his schoolwork out in seconds, and he seems to be analytically on par with his father, Dr. Temna (Nicolas Cage).

Dr. Temna, and General Stone (Donald Sutherland) are experimenting with a new war robot on par with the IRON GIANT called the Peacemaker. A key plot element has to do with two orbs from an exploded star, one red and infused with negative energy and one blue and infused with positive energy. These energy sources are so powerful and polarized that if they are brought into contact with each other, they will detonate. The megalomaniac Stone demands that the negative red orb be used to fuel the Peacemaker’s core, and all hell breaks loose. The Peacemaker can absorb its enemies into itself much like that plant from the original LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. The downside (for everyone in its vicinity) is that weapons that are being used against the Peacemaker get appropriated by him. When this is first shown, it is a magnificent thing to behold.

While Temna and Stone struggle to get the Peacemaker under control, Toby accidentally wanders into the fray and is (rather cleanly) vaporized. We see an homage to FRANKENSTEIN (complete with the body lifted into the rafters) as Dr. Temna, obviously destroyed by the loss of his son, takes a page from ‘70s television and re-creates Toby, stronger, better, and faster. The robotic Toby is, for all intents and purposes, a living, breathing creature. He wakes up with human Toby’s memories and DNA strain. And he has emotions and a thirst for knowledge. Furthermore, he hasn’t yet been told that he isn’t “real.”

ASTRO BOY really reaches out and grabs the heart of the viewer when Toby’s father tells him he is a robot and rejects him. The rejection process is a simple one yet sophisticated enough to dent the most jaded of viewers.

The rest of the film is a series of adventures that take place as Toby processes his existence. He goes to the surface of the earth like a Christ figure and learns of human cruelty to robots. There are some funny parts in this as he meets up with a group of kids who live out their own version of the Isle of Lost Boys from PINNOCHIO. The humans on the earth’s surface have gone old-school Roman Empire and fight souped-up robots at a praetorium. Identity issues abound as Toby hides his true self.

Toby does finally embrace his existence, however, and it is just in time because General Stone is up in Metro-City channeling Dick Cheney, and his Peacemaker is completely out of control. In the end Toby has to save Metro-City from round two with the malfunctioning Peacemaker.

ASTRO BOY has all of the elements of a cinematic slam-dunk. The plot is sentimental, and when the humor works, the film is genuinely funny. However, outside of the development of Toby’s personality, the rest of the characters are rather flat and uninspiring.

A problem that really cuts to the heart of this film is with the voice actors. Nicolas Cage’s lazy speech pattern and drunken pauses are so pronounced that it is clear that it is Nicolas Cage who is Dr. Temna. And Temna never actually springs to life; he is hindered by Cage’s voice, which is also the voice behind so many things that are wrong with movies today. Even Donald Sutherland’s General Stone sounds slightly off. ASTRO BOY is a movie that should have used nobodies across the board as vocal talent. Perhaps the other adults in the audience might enjoy the “connect the dots” game of guessing whose familiar voice these characters have. I personally found it tedious and a complete distraction from the film. By the time a character named Ham shows up with Nathan Lane’s voice, it is rather clear that ASTRO BOY is no TOY STORY, and the voices are out-weighing the characters. Tom Hanks can be Woody in TOY STORY because Woody has a personality and things to do. The adult characters in ASTRO BOY are limited to basic functions and never get to bloom into full-blown people.

ASTRO BOY presents every human’s struggle to find purpose. Unfortunately, at the end of it all, this film is rather corny. It would be great for a 10 or under kid because of its overriding simplicity. On the other hand, it isn’t for a 10 or under kid because of how violent and angst-ridden it is. The film is intense, and when the violence gets up and running, the only forgiving aspect of it is that these are robots hacking through each other and not human beings. But if these robots have true emotions, aren’t they human? This is a serious puzzle for the viewer to consider. It is probably the only thing worth considering after the credits roll.

-Mediasaurus Rex

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