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Astro Boy Review – Saturday Morning Cartoons Get Serious

astroboy_560x280.jpgWe may have reached a point where animated movies have ceased to aspire to look more and more like real life. This is a good thing. The slightly blocky, stylized characters of Pixar’s Up didn’t really look like people — they looked like characters in a distinctive, beautiful new universe. So it is with Astro Boy, which, for all its serious faults, is a joy to behold. Based on a classic manga character and several Japanese TV series, it looks like a lively, colorful CG anime, combining impressive attention to detail with the sort of cheerfully exaggerated un-reality you used to find in Saturday morning cartoons.

The content seems promising too, for a while. For one thing, Astro Boy has a disarming way of casually introducing weighty and even disturbing undertones to an otherwise upbeat and action-packed story. The main character, for example, is a super-powered boy robot created to mimic the human boy who died in a horrible mishap involving giant rogue machines. Fun stuff, but consider that the robot is created by the boy’s father, a brilliant scientist who is convinced that a robot doppelganger endowed with his son’s memories and experiences is just what he needs to relieve his grief. And then when it turns out that this robot boy isn’t quite his boy, he discards the creation, which is after all just a machine. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s basically the plot of Steven Spielberg’s brilliant and deadly-serious A.I. Artificial Intelligence — toned down for the pre-teen set, but heavy nonetheless.

The robot, nicknamed Astro by some new friends, has to find his way home and ultimately battle a deranged politician hellbent on using the dangerous and volatile technology that created Astro for nefarious electoral advantage. Here, too, the movie proves surprisingly serious-minded. The villain’s undoing is his failure to be properly awed by technology: “It’s a machine,” he’s fond of saying. “It’ll do what we tell it to do.” Tell that to the giant rampaging cyborg. The movie makes a legitimate point: We ourselves may only be years away from machines truly having “minds of their own,” at which point we would do well to understand them.

But, perhaps realizing that it was getting a little too heady for its target audience and commercial aspirations, Astro Boy proceeds to furiously compensate for its thematic ambition. It does so, mostly, by adding a great deal of frenetic comic relief and even more sentimental kiddie-flick message-mongering. The former is provided by a trio of furiously mugging, inept British robots who call themselves the Robot Liberation Front (a shout-out to The Life of Brian, I guess), whose occasional appearances are jarring and not very funny. The latter takes the familiar form of incessant speechifying about Belonging, Being Who You Are, etc. Both make the movie feel manufactured and generic, betraying its appealing energy and potent ideas.

It’s not that I wanted Astro Boy to be some sort of stone-faced disquisition on the nature of technology and human identity. This is, after all, a cartoon — and proudly so. But I was disappointed to see the movie appeal so aggressively to uninspired dancing-monkey-type humor and anodyne convention. The last half hour, in particular, is so heavy on the tween-age sentiment that it lost me completely. Worse, I’m not sure kids respond to this stuff as well as the the filmmakers seem to believe. You can only be lectured to Be Yourself so many times.

At just over 90 minutes, Astro Boy is painless, and occasionally intriguing. (And it looks great.) But it seems almost deliberately watered-down. I am sure that modern-day animators are sick to death of being compared to Pixar at every turn, but I’m sorry: Astro Boy compromises in precisely the way Pixar never has. It’s a promising little movie that winds up defeating itself.

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