Astro Boy
R1 - America - Summit Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo (24th April 2010).
The Film

If there’s one thing I can proclaim with no reservations, it’s that I have virtually no knowledge of anime. I’m unfamiliar with its most popular characters, I can count on one hand all of the films I’ve seen, and it’s really never had any appeal to me as a major film buff. So, as usual, I was surprised to learn that "Astro Boy" has a lengthy history dating back to 1951, and that the series has encompassed comic books, cartoon series, action figures and a bevy or cross-promoted merchandise. Could’ve fooled me, I’ve never heard of him. And that might explain why, despite an obviously large following overseas, the feature-length CGI film, “Astro Boy” (2009), failed to find an audience in America, resulting in an incredibly disappointing box office run. It only managed to squeak out slightly half of its reported $65 million budget, which seems to show the even international audiences didn’t care to see this film which Summit Entertainment hath wrought. After watching it, I can certainly understand why that is.

I don’t intend to bore you with a history lesson, but this is as much for my own benefit as it is yours. I think that a little background is required to understand exactly how popular this character once was (maybe still is?) and to get a feel for his placement among the myriad characters present in Japanese anime culture. Basically, what you need to know is that Astro Boy was created in 1951 by Osamu Tezuka. He was looking to create a “21st century reverse-Pinocchio”, a sentient being who could straddle the gap between man and machine. The character proved to be extremely popular, leading to three different television series, numerous video games and, of course, a healthy assortment of comic books. Now, why a feature film was commissioned to be made now is anybody’s guess. Sony had acquired the rights to the character in 1999, intent on pushing out a film by Christmas 2000. When that didn’t happen, the project found itself in turnaround with various producers and directors being attached before it finally ended up at Summit Entertainment. Judging by the final project, maybe all of the problems they had getting it made should have been a sign to quit while they were ahead.

It’s the year 2925 A.D., and Earth has become a garbage-filled wasteland, so the scientists of Metro City figure out a way to detach the city from the planet, creating a floating metropolis. Toby Tenma (Freddie Highmore), is a gifted student who wants to be just like his brainiac father, Dr. Bill Tenma (Nicolas Cage), the head of the Ministry of Science. One day, Toby follows his father to a top secret conference where Dr. Elefun (Bill Nighy) is giving a lecture on energy that has been harnessed from a comet’s core. President Stone (Donald Sutherland) wants to use this energy for a series of Peacekeeper robots which are being designed to deal with the people living below the city, back on Earth. The demonstration, however, goes horribly wrong and Toby ends up begin vaporized right before his father’s eyes. Determined to keep the sprit of his son alive, Dr. Tenma creates a highly-advanced robot boy, Astro Boy, using DNA from a strand of Toby’s hair. He had hoped that this new creation could take Toby’s place, but he soon realizes that the void inside him remains unfilled. Astro Boy, not sure of his place in life, retreats back to the planet’s surface to find where he fits in this world. He makes some new friends, learns to accept himself, and comes through when new threats are reared in Metro City.

There are some good moments of self-reflection in the film, with Astro trying to figure out just where he fits into this world, but the bulk of the plot is paper-thin. As I said, I’m not familiar with the manga series, so I don’t know how well (or not) those stories were written. But everything that occurs here is expected, so predictable. I realize that they aimed this squarely at younger viewers, so a plot made up of unexpected (read: realistic) plot turns shouldn’t be counted on, but it’s hard to even remotely find yourself engaged when everything is so formulaic that you can predict the next scenes events better than Carnac from "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" (1962-1992). Even worse, it’s all very hokey, corny. You’ve got Eugene Levy continuing to whore himself out, this time lending his talents to their voice of Orrin, an inept robotic sidekick. Hard to believe, eh? A dumb robot acting alongside a smart one. That’s seemingly required at this point for android films, isn’t it? The humans that Astro befriends on the surface are no different; they’re simply clichéd archetypes that we’ve seen countless times before. Nothing new is brought to the picture, and it suffers greatly because of it.

As a viewer, I expected a certain level of animatronic acting from the film’s characters because, well, you know, they’re all computer-generated. So, as with every other animated film ever made, it can only be as strong as the voices that bring each character to life. I’ll give Freddie Highmore some kudos for showcasing some genuine enthusiasm in his role as Toby/Astro. He seems to really be putting his all into it. Poor kid, he’s still too young to know any better. You know who does know better? Nicolas Cage. He no doubt saw this as an opportunity to pocket some quick cash (he’s been having some major financial difficulties lately, if you didn’t know), so he probably figured that there wasn’t much reason to break out his “good Nic Cage” acting chops. Here, we get “bad Nic Cage”, and “bad Nic Cage” sounds like he was taking a crap in a department store, reading his lines over the phone while he struggled to pass a monster of a turd. He’s listless, lifeless, dull, drab, monotone, flat… you get the picture. “Bad Nic Cage” can sometimes be a joy to watch on screen, but he’s no fun at all when you’ve got to listen to him. Thankfully, his character doesn’t command a large portion of the screen time, but you’re feeling the minutes tick by painfully slowly when he is.

Video

Animated films tend to get a pass on DVD and Blu-ray simply because they’re rendered in the digital realm, thus a near-perfect transfer is usually not just expected, but practically guaranteed. However, I wasn’t too enthralled with the film’s 2.35:1 anamorphic image. I thought the image was a tad on the soft side, leaving the visuals looking a bit too ill-defined for my tastes. I’ve come to expect razor-sharp clarity from animation, with black lines tightly sealing in the rainbow of colors on display. But the images here looked almost watery, with poor line definition and a lack of fine detail. I would assume some of that stems from the result of being a standard-definition image, as I would expect the Blu-ray counterpart to be far more inclusive of finer details. But as far as DVD goes, this isn’t among the best presentations I’ve seen. Maybe if it had done a little better financially the effort could have been made to give it a bit more of a spit polish. Colors still pop on the screen, but the palette isn’t nearly as striking as I was expecting.

Audio

Luckily, the audio mix fares better. The English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound track has some weight to it. The score reverberates through all speakers with some impressive levels; in fact, almost too impressive at times. I often found myself reaching for my remote to increase the volume during scenes of dialogue, but I had to pull it right back out to decrease the volume once action scenes kicked in. The balance here is all over the place. It probably doesn’t help that some of the actors (I’m listening to you, Nic Cage) are less passionate with their lines than others, but that still doesn’t explain why the dialogue is mixed so much lower than the action. The score, by John Ottman, isn’t bad at all, but I just wish it had been synched up with the voices a bit better in terms of level.
There is also a Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound track included. Subtitles are available in English for the hearing impaired and Spanish.

Extras

The majority of the extras found here focus on the making of the film, although they did see fit to include two all-new animated sequences specifically for this disc. The rest of the features consist of a few behind-the-scenes featurettes and some bonus trailers.

“Inside the Recording Booth” is a featurette which runs for 10 minutes and 17 seconds, this is a glimpse at the film’s well-known cast members laying down their lines in the studio. Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Kristin Bell, Donald Sutherland, Eugene Levy, Nathan Lane and David Alan Grier all talk about their own personal experiences with Astro Boy as a character, and we get to see them delivering their lines while clips from the film are shown.

“Designing A Hero” is a featurette which runs for 10 minutes and 37 seconds. After showing us how to draw our own Astro Boy, the team behind bringing the character to the big screen discusses how they approached updating his look for the feature film. We get to see lots of pre-vis sequences, artwork, sketches and computer designs.

“Building Metro City” is a featurette which runs for 7 minutes and 31 seconds. The design team shows up how they created Metro City, some of its interior locations and Earth. They talk about bringing certain features of Earth, such as nature, into the interior of the fictionalized metropolis. We also get a tour of the studio where all of the animation work took place.

“Astro Boy Image Gallery: Creating a Global Icon” is a featurette which runs for 4 minutes and 55 seconds, we get a guided tour of all things Astro as we see everything from early beginning sketches during his inception all the way up through promotional materials created for his U.S. theatrical debut.

“Getting the Astro Boy Look” is a featurette which runs for 2 minutes and 45 seconds. Well, it’s less a featurette and more a really lame commercial for L.A Looks hair gel, though they don’t push it as hard as I expected. A terrible promo piece, this shows groups of young kids going to some studio sponsored event to have their hair done up like the titular boy hero.

There are two all-new animated sequences made for this release:

- “Astro Boy vs. The Junkyard Pirates” runs for 3 minutes and 24 seconds.
- “The RRF In: The New Recruit” runs for 1 minute and 7 seconds.

Finally, there are some bonus trailers for the following:

- “Bandslam” runs for 2 minutes and 33 seconds.
- “Fly Me to the Moon” runs for 1 minute and 17 seconds.

Packaging

The single-disc comes housed in an amaray eco-case with an embossed slipcover, which replicates the artwork beneath.

Overall

I knew nothing of "Astro Boy" before watching this film, and I don’t really care to know any more after. The movie was a paint-by-numbers experience with some mediocre animation and a mixed bag voice cast. The picture quality suffers on DVD, and the audio quality was too uneven to be rewarded. A modest slate of extras doesn’t do much to enhance the package, so I’d say this is really only for the diehard Astro fans, and judging by the box office returns there aren’t too many of them out there.

The Film: D Video: C+ Audio: B- Extras: C Overall: C

 


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