Friday, October 23, 2009

Review: "Astro Boy"

We are so spoiled.

When it comes to animated feature films, audiences have been enjoying a renaissance for so long now that we've come to look upon the extraordinary as the ordinary, the amazing as ho-hum.

With great-looking, smart and affecting flicks like "Up," "Coraline" and "Kung Fu Panda" seem to be falling out of the sky -- or at least dropping into local cinemas -- every few weeks, it soon becomes the new standard.

That's why "Astro Boy" feels like such an also-ran. The storytelling is aimed strictly at small children -- those over age 8 need not apply. As for the animation, if the film had arrived five years ago, it would be considered spectacular. But now, the somewhat flat surfaces and fake-looking hair practically announce its second-rate status.

Of course, the coiffure on Astro Boy's head is supposed to look artificial. The comic character's signature swoopy 'do that converges in a pair of points that resemble horns -- though as Astro protests, it's actually just hair gel.

The set-up is somewhat similar to that of "Wall·E" -- humans have junked up the Earth, so they leave it. In this case, it's not into space but just a few thousand feet up, as the denizens of Metro City float on an island hovering over the surface, which is where they throw all their trash.

A great deal of this refuse is broken-down robots, who are the city's iron-plated indentured servants -- cooking all the meals, driving the cars, etc. The two greatest scientists are Dr. Elefun (voice of Bill Nighy) and Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage), who have created two new limitless power sources: Blue energy and Red. The Blue is stable and safe, while any robot powered by the Red is likely to go off on a killing spree.

If you're wondering if this is a non-too-subtle riff on Red State/Blue State animosity, you'd be right. Of course, most of the jokes -- the power-mad president (Donald Sutherland) has a campaign sign urging "It's not time for change" -- will sail right over the heads of the target audience.

Tenma's son Toby (Freddie Highmore) is killed during an experiment, so Tenma recreates him as a Blue-powered robot, using some of Toby's DNA to implant him with the boy's memory. But Tenma rejects the creation, who can fly and perform other super-feats.

Faux Toby is exiled to the surface, where he discovers a troupe of children rummaging among the scrap for their benefactor, a kooky inventor named Hamegg (Nathan Lane). They dub him Astro, but the robot boy is afraid to reveal his nature to his new friends -- especially after discovering that Hamegg is only fixing up the old robots so he can fight them gladiator-style.

"Astro Boy" was directed by David Bowers, who also helmed "Flushed Away" from a few years ago. He also co-wrote the script with Timothy Harris.

As entertainment for wee ones, it's not poor fare, and the mix of bloodless action and cute/doofy robots will keep them mostly in their seats. Compared to other animated offerings, though, it lacks special powers.

2 stars

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