Wednesday, October 28, 2009


“Flushed Away” co-director David Bowers makes his stand-alone directing debut on the $65-million, Summit Entertainment, big-screen remake of “Astro Boy,” (**** ot of ****) the first example of anime that Japanese television broadcast in 1963. Initially, “Astro Boy” went by the name Tetsuwan Atomu, or Mighty Atom. Later, when the character made his debut on American television, the fictional robotic protagonist acquired the name of Astro Boy. Naturally, “Kindergarten Cop” scenarist Timothy Harris and Bowers have diverged slightly from the original, but they have kept the essential storyline largely intact. Historically, “Astro Boy” made his literary debut in Japanese comic books back in 1952. Osamu Tezuka, who created “Astro Boy” and has since been hailed as “the God of Manga,” turned his back on a career in medicine to write stories about an android “Pinocchio” whose feats of strength and speed more than match the DC Comics’ hero Superman. The success of the original Japanese television show spurred a remake both in 1983 and in 2003. Essentially, this pint-sized automaton spends its time waging a perpetual war on crime, evil, and injustice. Humans that hate robots, robots-run-amok, and alien invaders constitute Astro Boy’s primary adversaries. Excellent computer-generated animation, charismatic voice performances by Nicholas Cage, Donald Sutherland, Kristin Bell, and Nathan Lane, and Bowers’ energetic helming make this 94-minute opus refreshing as well as worth watching.

This fantastic but formulaic Japanese-animated science fiction adventure epic takes place in a futuristic society where robots perform all the menial tasks and are discriminated against because they lack humanity. A father loses his son during a laboratory mishap involving a military robot implanted with a core substance that enables it to defy the three rules of robots as established by sci-fi guru Isaac Asimov. The brilliant but selfish scientist Dr. Tenma (Nicholas Cage) has created ‘the Peacekeeper,’ a hulking cyborg that General Stone (Donald Sutherland of “M.A.S.H.”) has commissioned to solidify his presidency from all contenders. Tenma’s inquisitive whiz-kid son Tobias (Freddie Highmore of "The Spiderwick Chronicles") wants to witness the robot trials. Tenma has Toby locked up for safety, but this smarty pants schoolboy figures a way to escape. Later, he finds himself trapped in the same area with the heavily armed Peacekeeper robot. When the machine tries to penetrate a force shield with awesome array of armaments, the blasts render it useless and atomize Tobias. The grieving Dr. Tenma retrieves the only remnant of his son: a baseball cap. He takes a strand of hair from the cap, extracts the DNA, pulls out all of the memories and inserts them into a cyborg version of his son. The allusion to Pinocchio is clearly obvious. Unfortunately, Tenma tires of his son the robot and pines for the real McCoy. The catch here is the robotic version of the boy does not know that he is a robot.

Eventually, the father cannot stand the sight of the robot because he knows that it is not his son. As it turns out, the robot has a blue-core in its chest that allows it to pull off some pretty amazing stunts. When the evil political leader wants Dr. Tenma to remove the blue core from his son to put into the war robot, the father turns against him. Astro Boy escapes, but is exiled when enough explosions knock him off the floating chunk of earth called Metro City to the ground below where rusting robots lay piled in heaps. Metro City is a solitary island of land that levitates above the polluted earth. Astro Boy discovers new companions, orphaned humans, but he also realizes now that he is a robot. He can understand what robots are saying when they speak. Now, Astro Boy has to keep is identity a secret from his new friends, foremost of whom is a pretty little thing named Cora (Kristen Bell of "Veronica Mars"). These kids scour the earth for robot parts for another scientist, Ham Egg (Nathan Lane of "The Producers") who rebuilds robots and matches them against each other in gladiatorial struggles to the death in a coliseum Roman style. Astro Boy helps rebuild a gigantic robot named ZOG and Ham Egg reveals Astro Boy's secret and forces him to fight ZOG. The only problem is that Astro Boy refuses to kill. Meanwhile, the evil military leader, General Stone (Donald Sutherland of "M.A.S.H") sends forces to retrieve Astro Boy. One of the funniest scenes occurs when Astro Boy is battling a “Transformers” style robot and learns that he is equipped with a pair of machine guns loaded into his buttocks!

Director David Bowers never lets the momentum slow down. The hyperkinetic action scenes are spectacular with our underdog champ Astro Boy pitted against some wicked foes that want him dead. The theme of racial intolerance pervades the action with robots seen as our inferiors until—in the words of one human—Astro Boy emerges with more humanity than most humans. Occasionally, Bowers’ film takes on a grim feeling, particularly when Dr. Tenma turns against his son. What sets “Astro Boy” apart from the usual competition is the subtlety of its storyline. This colorful storytelling is ideal for both children and adults.