There are no kids in Hollywood, only a kid market. So the moguls gleefully rub their rough hands at the recent blooming of animated features into a reliable blockbuster genre. Anyone could have predicted that Pixar's Up, Blue Sky's Ice Age 3 and DreamWorks' Monsters vs Aliens would be among the year's top-grossing pictures, but who saw Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs coming? The success of Meatballs, G-Force and Where the Wild Things Are underlines the movie industry's hope that in every jaded teen or wizened adult there's an inner child whose sense of wonder and spending money are waiting to be tapped.
Into this crowded agora comes David Bowers' Astro Boy, an animated feature based on Osamu Tezuka's 1951 manga series that spawned a TV cartoon series from the '60s. (I confess I never saw it, because I was out doing stuff that decade.) The new version, streamlined and Americanized, but with animation from the Hong Kong company Imagi, lacks the brand recognition of the big CGI studios, but the movie has its charms. It's fun, encyclopedically derivative and pretty darned affecting.
Dr. Tenma (voiced by Nicolas Cage in noble-mopey mode) is the leading scientist in Metro City, a floating utopia of the future where robots do most of the work for humans. Tenma is devoted to his son Toby (Freddie Highmore, of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), a boy genius who's also a nice kid. When Metro City's nasty mayor Stone (Donald Sutherland) insists on activating a kind of death ray, Toby wanders into the lab and is killed. His grieving father creates a robot version of Toby same DNA, but with cool extras like propellant flames in his shoes and machine guns in his butt. Rejected by his father, Toby escapes Metro City and lands on the grungy surface of earth, where children are enslaved by the cheerfully malicious Ham Egg (Nathan Lane), and an underclass of humans and robots are forced into gladiatorial slam downs. Can Toby survive this environment, save his new friends, return to Metro City and win his father's love? (Spoiler alert: Yes, four times.)
You will recognized the story's reverberations of familiar mythic characters: Frankenstein, Pinocchio and Jesus. Plus the old Philip K. Dick premise of a man who doesn't know he's a cyborg, that Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg borrowed for A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and which showed up this year in Moon and Surrogates. Plus the literal underclass and upper-class strata of WALLE. And not to forget the bereft father, twisted by family tragedy, from last week's Law Abiding Citizen. "If you lose your son like this," a fellow scientist tells Dr. Tenma, "and you don't go crazy, you're not a human being." Tenma doesn't plot the ingenious murders of everyone in Metro City, the way the father does in Law Abiding Citizen; he simply, and more plausibly, averts his heart from the child he has created, because this Toby is so close to the real Toby as to be both painful reminder and a cruel mockery.
To itemize these elements isn't to say they can't be powerful. Maybe all stories are just one story, with the common themes of love and loss, art and adventure, death and resurrection. These are the threads from which Astro Boy weaves its coherent imaginary world. The gravity of grief carries Tenma's character through the story; the robot Toby's need to prove himself to his dad and himself turns him into a superior being, the best of both species. Ham Egg, the exploiter of children down on earth, is a little bit Fagin, a little bit Stromboli from the Disney Pinocchio, and a whole lot rotten; but, thanks to Lane's vocalizing, he has enough vaudeville swank and showmanship to make him an irresistible cartoon villain. (The same can't be said for Sutherland's mayor, a one-note sociopath who risks Metro City's very existence in order to get re-elected. Why doesn't he just rig the ballot boxes like any normal despot?)
Director and co-writer Bowers worked at Aardman Films under Nick Park (of Wallace and Gromit glory) and directed Flushed Away, that uneasy alliance of the gnome-artisans at Aardman and the brasher gang at DreamWorks. What both outfits stress is telling stories through characters, and Bowers (along with co-writer Timothy Hyde Harris) breathe a solid emotional life into Toby and Tenma, while adhering to the confines of a kid-oriented feature. The animation style is supple and assured. And if the audience includes any precocious kids like Toby, they'll be diverted by references to Isaac Asimov and Immanuel Kant.
Any purely reasoned critique of Astro Boy would note that it does not advance the art of animation, and that some of its humor stabs miss their mark. But Bowers knows how to infuse emotion without just ladling it out in Act III; it is at the core of the story, as Astro Toby teaches his father the verities of love, heroism and family feeling. The little robot has a strong, generous heart, and so does this movie.