Maybe children’s films should all get double review grades: one for kids, and another for their parents and guardians. Patronizing as that sounds, movies like the 2009 CGI updating of Osamu Tezuka’s manga/anime classic Astro Boy make it achingly clear that different generations won’t see the same film. Young audiences will get a slick, exciting, well-animated adventure with a neat child-robot protagonist who gets drawn into city-smashing battles. Older viewers are more likely to see a muddled film full of one-dimensional characters and insultingly strident politics.
The latter start with a ball of space energy claimed by Metro City, a shiny futuristic utopia that hovers above the clouds, dumping trash on the suffering ground-dwellers below. (The giant garbage heaps, the enclave of spoiled elitists, and the chipper intro that explains them strongly recall their better-realized counterparts in Wall-E.) The scientist, Dr. Elefun (Bill Nighy) splits the energy into two parts: positive, pro-environment, happy blue energy, and negative, unpredictable, destructive red energy. For those who don’t follow the metaphor, the film underlines it: When Metro City creator Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage) develops a new security robot, evil military politician General Stone (Donald Sutherland) commandeers the red energy to power it, claiming incongruously that his chosen voters are those who like evil redness. The robot promptly runs amuck, killing Dr. Tenma’s son Toby. In a fit of grief and denial, Tenma creates a high-powered robot duplicate. From there, the plot stays in motion via a series of baffling implausibilities, as General Stone, Tenma, and the robot, Astro, all make ridiculous choices that the script doesn’t bother trying to justify.
The poor writing does give Astro Boy a certain unpredictable thrill: Since the characters aren’t consistent or remotely sensible, there’s no limit to where the story might go. But the film’s soppy, sentimental tone asks viewers to get emotionally involved, even though Stone is a cheap caricature, Tenma never makes any sense, and even Astro reverses his high-minded morals in an instant for the sake of an action sequence. Director David Bowers (Flushed Away) is seemingly a Tezuka fan, given the film’s visual fidelity to his art, and all the little Easter-egg Tezuka references sprinkled throughout for adult fans. But his script (co-written with Timothy Harris) is weak, clunky, and lazy. Tezuka was fantastically prolific over the course of his much-celebrated life; amid all his stories, surely they could have located one that was better than their insulting re-imagining.