ASTRO BOY suffers a surfeit of sentiment. Sweet, sappy, and exhibiting only the briefest waftings of whimsy, the chipper boy-bot icon of Japanese manga and cheesy television fame is brought to animated life in a script that clips along briskly enough to keep kids engaged, but will leave adults twiddling their thumbs while being disappointed that the underlying themes of morally bankrupt politicians, social injustice, and ecological responsibility got lost in the saccharine ooze of Pinocchio redux.
It’s an origin story that begins in Metro City, the floating piece of real estate constructed by humanity in order to escape the mess that they have made of planet Earth. There, tended by hordes of efficient and servile robots, humanity lives a life where the shopping is done, the house is cleaned, and reminders to call Mom on her birthday are handled for them. It’s paradise, except for President Stone (voiced with smooth malevolence by Donald Sutherland), who needs something spectacular to insure his re-election. Fortunately, science has something to offer him, a mysterious substance called the Blue Core. Unfortunately, in a world of yin and yang, the Blue Core has its evil opposite, the Red Core and that, of course, is what Stone wants to use in the new Peacekeeper Robot, the big one that he wants to use just as soon as he can come up with an excuse to start a war with the people still stuck on the surface. It goes badly and in the process Toby, son of the Minister of Science Tenma (voiced with an uncommitted whisper by Nicolas Cage), meets an untimely end. Heartbroken, the brilliant doctor recreates his kid using technology and a dollop of DNA. The new Toby has all the old Tobys memories, but he doesnt know hes a robot. Naturally it doesnt take him long to figure out somethings up when tootsies turn into rockets and slamming into buildings at the speed of sound doesnt leave a mark. He also suspects that somethings up when government troops come after him and the only remaining bit of Blue Core left.
It is no exaggeration to say that Toby, soon re-dubbed Astro and then Astro Boy, searches high and low for a family after his father decides a robot son is a less than stellar idea. Stranded on Earth, he is first accosted by the scrapped robots tossed there from Metro City as they chant one of us in a peculiar homage to Todd Brownings FREAKS. Soon, though, he is adopted by a gaggle of ragamuffins led by Hameggs, a robot afficianado with a way with repairing them, and coveted by a trio of would-be robot revolutionaries who fight their own lack of understanding of what revolution actually involves, as well as Asimovs Law of Robotics that doesnt let them hurt humans. They are also fairly incompetent as the comic relief they so desperately need to be. As for Hameggs, their nemesis, there is a vaguely Arabic cast to the way the name is pronounced that gives pause only slightly mitigated by Nathan Lanes ebullient voicing. Hameggs lair is a kids paradise, though, full of indoor tire swings, endless pizza dinners, and a chainsaw. The kids themselves are standard issue cute plus the standard issue cynical leader, Cora (Kristen Bell), who, of course, is not as tough as she seems. There is something distinctly off in the modeling of Astro Boy compared to her. The proportions are not quite right, as though the scale used by each modeler was a fraction out of synch, but enough to make a difference on screen.
Robots bash robots, big scary flying machines scoot across the sky, and stale dialogue falls flatter than yesterdays pancake. Yet even while dealing with all of that and a heart broken by his fathers rejection, ASTRO BOY is unfailingly upbeat and polite, which in the end becomes tedious and just a bit irritating. The most charming moment has little to do with any of that. Rather it is the interlude where the newly made, but still unwitting robot, re-creates Da Vincis helicopter and floats a passel of them in his room. Theres a sense of wonder and of fun there lacking elsewhere in this dourly imagined tale whose only real value is in explaining the secret behind that pointy hairdo sported by our hero for all these years (hair gel).