- RatedPG /GenreAnimation, Family, Science Fiction
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Rating: 3 out of 5
When film producers adapt a story from a foreign culture and tailor it for their own audiences, the potential benefit is that of tapping into a ready-made audience, depending on the prominence and brand-awareness of the material in question. But this is a double-edged sword.
The downside of appropriating a story beloved in another country or region (or medium), the way Hollywood has been steadily borrowing stories from the East in recent times, is that loyalists may feel outrage at perceived insensitivity and disrespect-maybe shades of cultural imperialism-with respect to the source material, especially if the adaptive effort is considered lacklustre or incompetent.
In the case of Astro Boy, where the titular character is a massive cultural icon, such that it has cultivated hardcore fans East and West ever since it first surfaced in Japan in the 1950s, the filmmakers are sitting on a potential box-office blockbuster, as well as a possible box-office time bomb.
So how did Hong Kong-based Imagi Animation, whose first major CG-animated theatrical film was 2007's hit TMNT movie, do with this film?
In terms of developing a story that would appeal to families and younger audiences, the studio has succeeded - barely. While the animation is smooth and features attractive designs, and the cast is loaded with name-stars such as Nicholas Cage, Kristen Bell, Donald Sutherland, Bill Nighy and Freddie Highmore, the film is ultimately too safe in its themes and explorations.
What results is a movie that ticks all the boxes, but only to the extent of fairly good achievement, rather than excellent. This is the equivalent of getting straight B-minuses on a school report card.
In keeping with the original manga, Astro Boy (voiced by Finding Neverland's Highmore) is the Inspector Gadget-like, high-powered surrogate for dead son of the brilliant robotics scientist Dr Tenma (Cage). Blaming himself for a military experiment that kills his boy, Tenma builds Astro Boy in a story development akin to that found in Steven Spielberg's Artificial Intelligence: AI.
Aside from awesome machinery, such as guns in his bum and jets in his feet, Astro Boy also has something unexpected: the ability to feel human emotions. After he is abandoned by Dr Tenma, who realises that his invention can't bring back his dead son, he is forced to run from a militaristic politician (Sutherland) and his goons, who are bent on capturing him and extracting the rare, alien power source that keeps Astro Boy alive.
The themes are patronisingly easy to understand. When a homeless Astro Boy befriends a group of orphans, he is worried about fitting in and revealing his true identity (honesty is the best policy, you know?). The politician represents modern-day warmongering political agendas, while the robotic society speaks of human wastage and disregard for green resources.
There is even a lesson to be learned about slavery and its ills, which the filmmakers decide to milk for comedy with three bumbling revolution-minded robots, who hatch ridiculously subversive schemes against their human oppressors.
In the end, the film may be hailed as a visual treat, and it may seem to have all the right ingredients, but the final product lacks that extra bit of inspiration and pizzazz. It may attract families in droves, but likely leave most adults and some young ones bored. And it may have some diehard fans up in arms, an outcome that such adaptations have no choice but to face.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
"Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!" Michael Corleone, The Godfather, Part III (1990).