Monday, October 19, 2009

"Astro Boy" lands on big screen with dynamic style

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) – Since making his debut in a 1951 Osamu Tezuka manga, the beloved Astro Boy has been retooled as a fondly remembered 1960s black-and-white animated series and, subsequently, full-color renditions in 1980 and again in 2003.

Finally going the big-screen, computer-generated route, the iconic Japanese hero manages to keep his innate lovability intact in a visually dynamic if overly eager-to-please family feature cobbled together with parts reclaimed from various animated classics.

Although the social-political allegorical elements could have benefited from a slyer, less obvious touch, an energetic voice cast headed by Freddie Highmore and Nicolas Cage ultimately saves the day.

Designed to cater to older kids and their nostalgic parents, the heavily marketed Summit Entertainment release, which opens Friday (October 23), could be well positioned to attract a sizable demographic.

For the uninitiated, Astro Boy began life as Toby (Highmore), the wunderkind son of brilliant scientist Dr. Tenma (Cage) who is tragically killed in a robotic experiment gone terribly wrong.

Anguished, Tenma creates Astro Boy in Toby's image, but despite succeeding in programing him with all of his son's memories and characteristics, he ultimately rejects him as a convincing substitute.

Filled with rejection and chased by the military, Astro Boy flees from Metro City, the affluent metropolis perched in the sky, and crashes down to Earth, where vagabond kids scavenge for rusty, discarded robots and bring them back to their Fagin-like father figure, Hamegg (Nathan Lane).

There's obliviously a strong Pinocchio undercurrent running through the "Astro Boy" mythology, but in trying to make the movie version as accessible as possible, director David Bowers ("Flushed Away"), who shares screenplay credit with Timothy Hyde Harris ("Space Jam"), also has borrowed liberally from "WALL-E," "The Iron Giant" and "Robots," to name a few of its more notable influences.

A little more subtlety could also have been applied to a political subtext involving Blue Cores and Red Cores, power sources made with positive "blue" energy and negative, unstable "red" energy, with both being co-opted by the war-mongering President Stone (Donald Sutherland).

Then there's a whole other overt Marxist element that also might not go over so well in red states.

But that spirited voice cast, also including Bill Nighy, Eugene Levy and Kristen Bell, is among the year's best, and those gleaming, stylized backgrounds (taking their cue in part from the work of Katsushika Hokusai, a 19th century Japanese woodblock artist), effectively merge Eastern and Western sensibilites, even though the East in question was outsourced to Hong Kong.

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