If you're thinking of bringing the really wee ones, a note of caution: Astroboy kills a kid in its first reel. It's as bloodless a scene as you can get, but the fact remains: A child dies.
And that's about the most original moment in this beautifully animated, moderately entertaining robot adventure. Mixing Eastern and Western animation styles to Tezuka Osamu's 1950s manga (and the '60s cartoon series that begat modern anime), this Astroboy reboot assembles its repurposed parts to emulate the styles of both Pixar and Hayao Miyazaki — which are not bad examples to follow. Nevertheless, for all its vitality, competence and craft, the film rarely surprises, relying on tried and true narrative ticks.
Essentially a futuristic, super-powered version of Pinocchio, David Bowers's film follows Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage), who builds a robotic clone of his dead son Toby (Freddie Highmore) in a fit of grief only to discard him for not being authentic enough. Cast out of the idyllic cloud city, Toby crashes to the polluted earth below, where he tries to find his place with a group of vagabond kids as the newly dubbed Astro. Meanwhile the city's power-mad president (Donald Sutherland) plots to incite war with the ground dwellers to win re-election, setting up a whiz-bang confrontation that shows off the computer animators' mad skillz.
Despite the expected genre shenanigans — slapstick humor, frantic action, thick sentiment — Astroboy is aimed for a slightly older preteen audience, tackling such issues as alienation, class warfare and racism with surprising tact and sensitivity. Though it does have the subtle grace of Pixar's thematic efforts, it's nice to see a film strive to land something more than a few chuckles and gasps of awe. It also helps that the film's vocal talent, including Eugene Levy, Kirsten Bell, Nathan Lane, Bill Nighy and Samuel Jackson, is all first-rate, bringing life to otherwise predictable characters. Similarly impressive are the vigorous atomic age visuals and cartoon kinetics, which, at their best, capture the ecstatic joy of flight or the explosive impact of superhero combat.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].