Based on Tezuka Osamu’s beloved manga and anime franchise, Astro Boy is set partly in the clean and luxurious floating Metro City, and partly in the vast trash heap that constitutes the planet below, a dystopian vision in which the segregation of the wealthy elite from the underprivileged majority has been pushed to extremes—as have issues of waste disposal. Dr. Tenma (voiced by Nicolas Cage) experiments with “pure positive” and “pure negative” energies, which gets war-giddy President Stone (Donald Sutherland) jazzed on inventing excuses for some ultra-high tech ass-kicking to help boost his chances at re-election.
During one such experiment, single parent Tenma’s precocious only-son Toby (Freddie Highmore) is killed. Tenma plummets into grief and determines to bring Toby back to life by fusing some of the kid’s DNA into the body of a powerful robot look-alike, complete with all of Toby’s memories. But Tenma quickly becomes horrified by his creation, this cheerful little golem with his dead son’s smile and voice and demands for love. The robot Toby, our Astro Boy, is finally stranded on Earth, where other robots are onto his artificial nature while humans assume he’s one of them. He hooks up with a band of orphans led by one Ham Egg (Nathan Lane), a futuristic Fagan who hosts monster robot rallies. So Astro Boy has to keep a low profile, pose as a normal boy, conceal from the world his jet-propelled feet, superhuman strength, and machine guns ready to pop out of his synthetic flesh. Something that proves difficult once he knows that President Stone is on his tail and calling for his super-charged heart.
I’m not sufficiently versed in existing Astro lore to be certain how much of Flushed Away director David Bowers’ feature version extrapolates, bastardizes or re-invigorates the source material, but there’s no denying how engaged I was in Astro Boy’s recasting of Pinocchio, not to mention Oliver Twist, the myth of Icarus and Daedalus, and Freaks, its merging of familiar myths with modern concerns of class, isolationism, technological ownership, the environment, and the residual effects of rampant consumerism. Of course the implications are all pretty explicit, which seems perfectly legitimate given that this movie, with its moral parables, its colorful, fluid imagery and its exciting, explosive set pieces, is clearly geared toward a family audience.
Despite some notable histrionics from Cage, the vocal performances go a long way toward making Astro Boy feel buoyant amidst several detours into tragedy and eerie questions about what it means to be human. Sutherland actually underplays President Stone’s obvious roots in Bush Jr., Kristen Bell gives surprising texture to Cora, Astro Boy’s teenage love interest—speaking of eerie questions—and Samuel L. Jackson has a lot of fun within the very limited range of vocal possibilities of Zog, the giant robot pal revived by Astro Boy. Fantastic and somewhat simplistic as Astro Boy is, there’s a pleasing degree of investment here in what the consequences of our continued exploration of virtual culture and the uses and abuses of artificial intelligence. Sure beats the hell out of Surrogates, in any case.