Monday, July 12, 2010

Astro Boy (2009)

Voices of Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell, Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Nighy, Donald Sutherland, Nathan Lane
Directed by David Bowers
Science Fiction/Family
Rated PG: Action Violence.

The film opens with some weird tunnel effect were we see all the names of actors roped into doing voices for this movie, many of whom are just here for the sake of having their names recognized by the adults in the audience, as recognizing them in the movie isn't always easy, with the exception of Nicholas Cage whose voice is the most discernible, and yet is the only one saddled with his character's name in the titles.

From there we see the futuristic flying land mass of Metro City and our protagonist Toby (Freddie Highmore) and his distant father, the robotics genius Dr. Tenma, who is voiced by Nicolas Cage, in what I believe to be the most subdued performance of his career. Maybe its because he isn't used to doing voice acting, but it really sounds like he just read the lines and then left the recording studio. I guess this is how you would describe, “phoning it in.”

Toby sneaks into a labrotory to watch a demonstration a robot his father is working on for the military, but is killed during a test by the robot's live ammo. Apparently weapons testing in movies are never done with rubber bullets or fail safes. Its also curious how Toby actually is vaporized by the robot and I’m left wondering; “Wait, where’d he go?” We just get his hat on the ground and Dr. Tenma saying “He’s gone”, because I guess you can't say "dead" is a children's movie (which is strange given how they say “kill” twice by the end). If it were up to me, I’d put his limp arm in a pile of debris, so we can at least have some sort of visual cue to help us “make the connection” that I’ve mentioned previously in my reviews of “The Fly” and “The Wolf Man”, which essentially boils down to “Show, Don’t Tell”.

During this test we’re introduced to our antagonist President Stone (Donald Sutherland), He is a dim-witted warmonger obsessed with re-election, building bigger and deadlier weapons for a non-existent arms race with a campaign slogan, “We don’t need change.” Subtle. I can understand what they’re going for with a pastiche of George W. Bush traits, but it just feels a bit tasteless. Fortunately Donald Sutherland plays him sinister rather than campy, which would have wrecked any threat he posed entirely.

Now we get to the most interesting part which as Dr. Tenma builds a robot duplicate of Toby powered by "The Blue Core", which runs on positive energy and programs in all of Toby's memories but is disappointed that the robot isn’t exactly like his dead son and Toby slowly discovers the truth about what he is. There is a great scene where he discovers of his jet boots and a fast flight sequence with some great visual gags along the way. Tenma can’t bring himself to accept this replacement and shoes Toby away. I feel like some anger may have been appropriate here, but Nick Cage can barely raise his voice throughout the entire film. His friend, Dr. Elefun (Bill Nighy) gives a speech about “finding your destiny”, which has lead me to the conclusion that “destiny” is the most overused word in cinema.

Toby is soon confronted with Stone’s infantry, who want the Blue Core for their military robots, which it involves some cool action scenes, it also has more than a fair share of head scratching moments such as the faceless infantry having computer readouts on their helmets that reveal their their emotions and bowel movements (?), or when Toby saves the life of a falling soldier who, after being rescued jumps off a building (?) or when President Stone orders a giant intimidating ship to shoot Toby down, the ship is hidden by the framing for the shot so that we can’t see it’s full size and appreciate how threatening it is.

Anyway Toby is shot down off the flying island and into the trash heaps on the surface like something out of "WALL-E". He meets with up with a group of other kids lead by the punky pseudo love interest Cora, (Kristen Bell) and their surrogate father Hamegg (Nathan Lane), who is essentially just an animated version of Nathan Lane himself. The film really starts to dip here as the humor also starts to become more and more juvenile. Toby bonds with the kids, but keeps the fact that he’s a robot a secret because he wants them to “warm up to him”, because continuing to lie to them will endure them to you.

The writing gets really sloppy here as we are introduced to Isaac Asimov's famed Three Laws of Robotics, of which we only learn one, the others are just skimmed over, which is odd given how it’s mentioned quite at least three times after this. It seems that everyone in the audience is expected to know what they are without being explained, and I don't know how many kids are familiar with the concept. It's also frustrating how these laws are mentioned so many times but serve little to no function in the plot, so why bother even bringing it up? Toby also acquires the name “Astro”, because… because we need to tie it back into the name of the source material somehow. Eventually, Hamegg reveals to the others that Toby is a robot and forces him to fight in the robot gladiator games, only to be saved by a robot Toby revived with his Blue Core earlier named Zog (Samuel L Jackson). Being powered by the Blue Core, which represents all that is good and positive, Zog attempts to kill Hamegg in cold blood and would have succeeded had it not been for Toby intervening. What's up with that?

Anyway, we reach the climax as Toby is captured by Stone, Tenma reveals that he loves him, theres more talk of “destiny” and Toby has a fight with Stone's giant robot. The surface kids also tell Toby they love him and together we we all learn a lesson about accepting people the way they are right before Toby flys off to launch an unprovoked attack with a giant squid that fell from space. Wait What?!

I'm not too familiar with Japanese Manga that serves as the source material so I will judge it based solely on it's own merits. While the first third of the film shows some promise with an interesting premise and a few funny gags, the following acts slowly decline. The animation as a whole is alright, but there's nothing really wow-inducing. While there are some great action set pieces throughout, its not enough to cover up the plot holes.

Final Score:

2 1/2 out of 5. Nothing Special.

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