‘Astro Boy’ Falls Short of Tezuka’s Trademark Storytelling Style

UP, UP AND AWAY — Astro Boy test his powers in the new animated film, “Astro Boy.” © 2009 Imagi Crystal Limited and Summit Entertainment, LLC. Original Manga © Tezuka Productions Co., Ltd. All rights reserved.

This past month, Astro Boy, one of Japan’s greatest icons, made his debut in U.S. movie theaters. The new film,  appropriately titled “Astro Boy,” is directed by British animator David Bowers (“Flushed Away”) and produced by Hong Kong’s Imagi Studios’ (the CGI-animated “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”) — with some oversight by Tezuka Productions, the company founded by Astro Boy’s creator, Osamu Tezuka.

When evaluating a Hollywood remake of a beloved story, there are three things to consider: Is the remake respectful to the source material? Does it capture its essence? And, lastly, is it a good film?

The answer to the first question is yes: it does respect Tezuka’s material. Although there was some debate about elements of the film, such as Astro’s appearance — Imagi wanted a more teenage-looking protagonist, while Tezuka Productions wanted him to retain his childlike look — it retains the basics of the original. “Astro Boy” opens with the death of Toby, the son of futuristic Metro City’s Minister of Science, Dr. Tenma (voiced here by Nicholas Cage, a big fan of the original series).

The grief-stricken scientist decides to recreate Toby as a super-powered robot, but ultimately realizes that he cannot replace his son and casts out the robot (who is later renamed Astro, voiced in the film by Freddy Highmore). Astro falls into the hands of Ham Egg (Nathan Lane), who forces him to fight other robots. All of this is taken from the original and could be considered dark for an American family film, but is preserved out of reverence for the source material.

Other plot elements are new to the film, but feel fairly consistent with Tezuka’s politics. Metro City floats above the decimated Earth where a different class of people live (echoes of Tezuka’s “Metropolis”). The film’s primary villain is Metro City’s President Stone (Donald Sutherland), a ruthless, power-hungry tyrant who tries to start a war with the surface dwellers to guarantee him reelection. There is even a Robot Revolutionary Front that fights for robots rights (a theme that appeared consistently in Tezuka’s “Astro Boy”).

The film is also peppered with small homages, such as appearances by Tezuka’s trademark “hyoutan-tsugi” mushroom icon, his Mustachio/Shunsaku Ban character and even a “cameo” by Tezuka himself.

Despite all these nods, the essence of Tezuka’s work is nowhere to be found. The main story stays true to American family film conventions. Astro is cast out of his home and must make his own way in a new and confusing world (in this case, the earth below Metro City). Here he meets a band of ragtag kids, the leader of whom is a girl who acts tough, Cora (Kristen Bell), but is actually vulnerable.

After winning acceptance in the new world, he returns to his home, Metro City, which has been imperiled by a monstrously transformed robot President Stone. After saving the city, Astro triumphantly returns home, with his band of misfits, gaining himself acceptance and bringing the two worlds together. Along the way, Astro even encounters a smack-talking robot window cleaner, gets a robot dog sidekick and is told by a grandfatherly figure, that,  “everyone has a destiny.”

None of this is very Tezuka, but, at the same time, none of it is necessarily bad if handled correctly.

Unfortunately, it is not and this is not a very good film. Many Disney movies have a similar structure (think Disney’s “Lion King,” “Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and “Hercules”), with a few key differences.

In all those films, a character flaw in the protagonist is partially responsible for the disaster that besets their home, and the audience, who relates to the main character, feels a personal stake in the ensuing conflict. Also, their plots are more streamlined, devoid of diversions that don’t go anywhere like the robot revolutionaries “Astro Boy.” All breaks in the plot are used for pacing purposes, to give the audience a chance to breathe and to build up emotion to be released in the big comedy and action scenes.

Japanese family films, on the other hand, are often more episodic. Like “Astro Boy,” their plots are often looser and less structured. In the best of those films (think “Totoro” and  “Spirited Away”), plot is not the point, and each scene is important on its own. As such, each one is given room to breathe and, when combined, they create a sort of a series of textures that make up the film. Plot, in contrast to the Disney films, is used more to break up the individual scenes, they nag at the characters and indicate to them that there are other things going on outside the individual moment (such as reminders in “Totoro” that the characters’ have a sick mother or in “Spirited Away” that the main character’s parents have turned into pigs).

“Astro Boy” is not set up like a good Japanese or American film. The many divergent plot threads all vie for our attention, ultimately leaving us with nothing to care about.

In the end, it is the quality of the plot and storytelling that makes “Astro Boy” what it is. There is not much to comment on in regards to the film’s other elements, such as the animation, which is unexceptional, or the voice acting, which is great. Neither thing can really elevate or detract from a film that is missing the one thing Tezuka is best known for: great storytelling.

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