Astro Boy built from bits and pieces of better films

Get the shot glasses out, kiddies, ’cause we’re about to play another game of “Where Have I Seen That Before?” with perennial magna favourite, Astro Boy.

After the death of his son, Dr. Tenma (Nic Cage) hopes to temper his grief by creating a Stepford robot imbued with the DNA of his lost progeny. Powered by the “positive blue energy” of a fallen star, Astro Boy (Freddie Highmore) is a more mechanical version of Superman, with x-ray vision and the ability to fly.

The film is a coming of age story, a journey wherein Astro Boy must grapple with human emotion, his father’s disgust and, of course, the happy dichotomy of good versus evil. While unabashedly marketed for the sippy-cup set, as with most CG films these days, the screenwriters evidently felt the need to toss in a little something for mom and pop, saturating the presidential villain (Donald Sutherland) with a hackneyed satire of the Bush Administration, complete with uniformed Cheney. Jaw-dropping moments, mostly because they’re strangely funny in such a lackluster film, include a background campaign banner reading “It’s Not Time for Change.”

Those hoping the resurrected cartoon classic will indulge their nostalgia will be disappointed. The devices employed by the box-office hits of yore are cynically found throughout the film.

Most strikingly, Astro Boy feels like a shaky rendition of The Incredibles, without the latter’s pure enthusiasm for the 1960s aesthetic. The film mimics the sadly-dated fight scene between the multiple Mr. Smiths and Neo in the Matrix Reloaded almost frame-for-frame in one sequence. The Sutherland character, General Stone, looks like a younger version of Peter O’Toole’s critic in Ratatouille and later winds up resembling one of Michael Bay’s toys in Transformers.

After beginning to form a drinking game related to all of these references, one begins to wonder if the morality questions the film has posed — Astro Boy, for example, seems to be a product of ol’ George Dubya’s nightmarish stem cell research run-amuck scenarios — were in the least intended. Of course, one can’t help be amazed Dr. Tenma was able to avoid the lobbying, bureaucratic red tape and budget cuts generally associated with scientific endeavours to build Astro Boy at all.

The Pixar films which Astro Boy has so liberally alluded to are wonderful precisely because they do not feel the need to pander to the various demographics housed in the audience. They assume universality, where explanatory dialogue (“I got machine guns . . . in my butt?”) is deemed unnecessary and sharp dialogue is not eschewed for the assumed lower IQ of children. These films were made with love for their subject matter.

If Astro Boy is indeed lauded by so many, there is no reason for it not to be made with the exuberance and intelligence its fans deserve. It would seem that Astro Boy is merely another case of appropriating a franchise for nothing other than its name.

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