Astro Boy Review

With Kevin Munroe’s TMNT Imagi Studios had provided an excellent showcase for their talents in computer generated animation, seeing them come away with a feature both effective in its relatable themes and its respect toward the original source material. Performing strongly at the U.S. box office upon its opening, it seemed that the studio would go on to bigger things, particularly with the announcements of two re-imagings of legendary Japanese series’ Astro Boy (or Mighty Atom) and Gatchaman (a.k.a G-Force/Battle of the Planets). Beset by huge financial troubles, production on the former was halted, until additional funds were secured to see it finally hit theatres in the fall of last year. Made with a budget of almost double to that of TMNT, it ultimately earned half as much in gross revenue, effectively sealing the fate of a promising young force.

While that remains an unfortunate outcome, Astro Boy didn’t really do much to earn its place as one of the most memorable animated outings of the past five years or so. Sure, it looks nice and clean, with a charming simplicity in its stylized shapes and vibrant colours, but it’s all at the behest of a rather bumpy plot.

David Bowers, returning to helm after the moderate success of Dreamworks/Aardman’s Flushed Away works from a co-written screenplay with Timothy ‘Trading Places’ Harris. Over the years Astro Boy has seen many changes, and granted they’ve all had their ups and downs, but some things have always remained dominant through the channeling of Tezuka’s visions of a future under threat from mankind abusing its own power. Indeed even in this latest offering many of Tezuka’s ideals remain intact, with a threading eco-commentary and the push for acceptance amongst all beings featuring dominantly. In fact Bowers quite literally goes back to Astro’s early manga days, forging a storyline more closely in tune with that of its creator’s original envisioning of his characters, rather than go down darker avenues as seen throughout later years in both comics and television. That in itself is commendable enough, even if the feature merely scratches the surface of its themes.

In bringing Astro to a new audience, Bowers also sees to it that brand new elements are added to the mix, though by doing so the feature seems all the more trite with its conveniently placed character trials and sentimental cues. The group of outsider kids, for example, more often than not bog down the feature’s pacing and slightly grate, not only due to their predictable personalities, but so too on account of the film’s notable detachment from some of the series’ more evocative figures. Gone is the overarching presence of Dr. Tenma and Ochanomizu (here as Dr. Elefun), who merely enjoy the background here - with the latter shockingly underused - and in is the misplaced political satire of a presidency trying to secure its seat for the next few years. It’s clear that the feature does show its respect toward the original source by throwing in some loving nods, and some of its gags are splendidly played, particularly by the show-stealing Robot Revolution Front whose intentions are undermined by their inherent programming of the Three Laws of Robotics, but it’s all slightly off-pace and never really balances its action, drama and comedy all that neatly.

This would most certainly have been all the more tolerable if not for some of the most lifeless voice work you’ll likely hear, all from a predominantly A-list cast who have either A: clearly been told not to have fun or B: eaten bowls of Diazepam prior to recording. Main stars Nicolas Cage (whose likeness is ridiculously modelled on), Bill Nighy and Donald Sutherland are particularly dry in their respective roles, failing to bring any kind of gravitas to the screen, while the younger cast of Freddie Highmore and Kristen Bell try to inject some vitality. Tertiary support ultimately shine in managing to put smiles on our faces, while John Ottman provides a pleasant score, with a strong central theme for our protagonist as he discovers his powers; certainly doing its part in raising set-pieces and trying its best to evoke some sense of adventure.

The Blu-ray

Astro Boy is given a nigh-on perfect treatment with its 1080p AVC encode. As mentioned earlier the picture is one made up of bold and simple designs, with Metro City itself being halfway toward Art Deco in appearance. Imagi has created a rich environment and the Blu-ray presentation excels in drawing our eye towards the feature’s many wonderful details set between the bustling cityscape of the skies and the ruined Earth below; detail is pin-sharp (slight deliberate softness notwithstanding) across a canvas of exceptionally strong contrasts, with dreamy pastel shades and rustic tones that the Blu has no trouble handling. Aliasing does make an appearance and tends to be more noticeable on particular facial expressions - eyebrows/zany haircuts for example - but otherwise we’ve a transfer free from edge enhancement and unsightly compression artefacts.

The lossless English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio compliments the splendid visual presentation with what proves to be a robust soundstage. Dialogue is perfectly centred and crisp, while the rears - coupled with an aggressive bass - allow for some terrific panning effects, bombastic explosions and the sharp scrapings of metal on metal, while giving the film’s score equal amounts of freedom.

Extras

The excitement stops with the disc's basic assortment of bonus features, each with brief run times. Presented in HD they are as follows:

Inside the Recording Booth
Interviews with cast and crew - lots of back-patting and happiness.

Designing a Hero
Character Designer Luis Grane teaches us how to draw Astro in 2D, and then it’s onto creating 3D models, featuring interviews with the film’s art directors who discuss setting the right tone and how colour is used to set moods.

Building Metro City
Tim Cheung, head of Imagi takes us on a brief tour of the studio, where we learn a little more about the design work behind Metro City and various Earth locations.

Astro Boy Image Gallery: Creating a Global Icon
Pretty much the evolution of Astro Boy since his conception in slide-show format. We’ve character designs, promo materials and colour keys, all set to John Ottman’s score.

Getting the Astro Boy Look
Kids and adults get Astro Boy hair cuts, and all you need in one whole tub of gel. Awesome, mom!

Two specially created short films round off the disc. Both look just as good as the main feature in terms of detail and animation, but they’re also pretty inessential. Astro Vs. The Junkyard Pirates sees Astro back on Earth with his young friends as the local junkyard is set upon by thieving bandits, while The RRF in: The New Recruit - barely clocks in at a minute in length as the R.R.F. take ZOG under their wing.

Overall

A feature certainly not without its moments, Astro Boy ultimately disappoints with some banal voice acting and a plot of mixed priorities. A stellar presentation, however, should ensure that A/V enthusiasts are kept happy for 90 minutes.

Film
6 out of 10
Video
9 out of 10
Audio
9 out of 10
Extras
4 out of 10
Overall

6

out of 10

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