When a tragic accident robs Dr. Tenma (voiced by Nicolas Cage) of his beloved son, the brilliant scientist uses an ingenious new power source discovered by Dr. Elefun (Bill Nighy) to recreate the lad as Astro Boy (Freddie Highmore), a young robot with amazing super-powers. However, Tenma proves unable to accept this robotic replacement as his real son and Astro falls afoul of scheming President Stone (Donald Sutherland) who is eager to use the technological wonder to increase his stranglehold over the citizens of the flying metropolis known as Metro City. Cast down from this orbiting utopia, Astro lands on an Earth that has become a post-apocalyptic scrapheap, where through adventures with plucky orphans, robot revolutionaries and evil geniuses he discovers his humanity and embraces his destiny: to become a hero to humans and robots alike.
Manga genius Osamu Tezuka created the iconic robot boy, known in Japan as Tetsuwan Atom (“Mighty Atom”), way back in 1951. Though first adapted as a live action series in 1959, it was the 1963 anime that enchanted a generation both in its native land and across America where Atom was rechristened Astro Boy. Throughout his career Tezuka revisited his most beloved creation with the animated features Astro Boy: Hero of Space (1964) and Marine Express (1978), the thinly disguised and poorly received remake Jetter Mars (1977), and most notably the 1980 television revival where he broadened its philosophical overtones and deepened the drama to near kiddie-traumatizing levels. Since his death in 1989, the Tezuka estate mounted a very credible 2006 anime series screened on CBBC while filmmakers as diverse as Tsui Hark and Gendy Tartokovsky struggled to mount a live action version.
In Japan, Atom is bigger than Mickey Mouse and for countless generations overseas embodies everything admirable about Japanese animation and science fiction with its optimistic vision of technology and sophisticated storytelling. Which means avowed fans like myself had reason to be suspicious about this American-Japanese-Hong Kong co-production, especially given that production advisor (and Tezuka’s son) Makoto Tezuka has his name misspelled in the credits. Once you get over the shock of the Americanised character designs and personalities (i.e. sarcastic and abrasive, where the original Astro was the very embodiment of dutiful Japanese virtue), it is pleasing to see the filmmakers have for the most part stayed true to Tezuka’s core concepts and ideals.
David Bowers and co-writer Timothy Harris retain Tezuka’s penchant for wittily satirical asides, mostly centred around Donald Sutherland’s buffoonish arrogant president, and his humanism but soften his philosophical discourse and moral concerns about technological development with touchy-feely messages about being yourself and wanting to fit in. Whereas Western science fiction adheres to Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics (here amusingly disdained by one robot as “dull, boring, boring…”), Tezuka applied his Buddhist-Shinto beliefs by theorising that an artificial life-form would inevitably become self-aware. In the manga and anime this grew into a compelling subplot about robots being an oppressed minority, but here the story merely scratches the surface.
In place of his robot sister Uran, here Astro befriends a gang of scrappy street urchins (including Elle Fanning and Hannah Montana star Moisés Arias) led by tomboyish Emo-girl Cora (Kristen Bell), who have inadvertently allied themselves with Tezuka’s stock villain Hamegg (Nathan Lane). Bell brings warmth to her underwritten character and the film benefits from an unusually starry supporting cast including avowed anime fanatic Nicolas Cage, Samuel L. Jackson as a gentle giant robot, Eugene Levy as a nervous robo-butler, Charlize Theron all-to-briefly lending her jubilant tones as narrator, and Little Britain’s Matt Lucas as the leader of a radical (and oddly all-British!) group of robot revolutionaries who can’t actually harm human beings. This leads Bowers and Harris to include a couple of in-jokes to Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) and Pulp Fiction (1994) that seem out of place.
Purists may wonder why this Astro Boy wears jeans and a t-shirt (until the last scene, anyway) and is self-conscious about his quirky hairstyle and Tezuka’s innovative inclusion of machineguns in his backside, but children will undoubtedly adore the whiz-bang sci-fi action that feature some impressive mecha and super-sized robots. While nowhere as profound as Tezuka’s original, the drama is still deeper than in most cartoons and if this encourages more kids to seek out his work then so much the better.