Steamboy opens with a meaningful flourish, as a drop of water congeals at the tip of a stalactite, reflecting a busy, distorted vision of the crowded cavern below. It means nothing from a story standpoint, but visually, it's a declaration of intent, an announcement that the film intends as much ambitious design and unstinting detail as can possibly be packed into an animated film. In that regard, Japan's Katsuhiro Otomothe director of Akira, the film that most emphatically brought anime to Americanever flags. But like Akira, Steamboy is a bit baffling in the plot particulars, due mostly to its reliance on speechifying characters who seem more interested in posturing than in actually making sense.
In the English dub, Anna Paquin is the voice of Ray Steam, a precocious young inventor growing up in 1860s Manchester, where he tinkers with complicated steam-driven gadgetry inspired by the work of his father (Alfred Molina) and grandfather (Patrick Stewart). When Ray's grandfather sends home an experimental high-powered "steam ball," thugs quickly show up to claim it, and Ray's grandfather pops in to attack them, declaring that Ray's father is dead and the steam ball must be protected at all costs. One wild chase sequence follows the next as Ray attempts to obey, but before long, he learns that his father is alive, and has his own questionable plans for the steam ball. Amid the awe-inspiring backdrop of the London Exhibition, Ray's father and grandfather face off for possession of the invention and for the right to speak for and represent Science Itself, while their baffled but respectful descendent is caught firmly in the middle.
Otomo first attempted to produce Steamboy in 1995, but ran into financial difficulties. The film became the most expensive anime project ever attemptedand no wonder, given its impossibly sumptuous design, which packs every inch of the screen with vivid color and spectacular imagery. Otomo rarely misses a chance to play with animators' nightmares like fire, water, shadows, and clouds, and his film's constant, frenetic motion is beyond breathtaking. But it rings slightly hollow at the core, thanks to the bizarre plot, which has two thoroughly mad scientists and multiple hangers-on delivering heartfelt rants about the purpose and meaning of science, then endangering the lives of countless people to enforce their will. Much in the spirit of Otomo's other projectsAkira, the shorts "The Order To Cease Construction" and "Cannon Fodder," and the scripts for Metropolis and Roujin ZSteamboy takes place in a frenetic, centerless, entropic world where selfishness taints almost everyone who touches powerthe military-minded in particularand wholesale chaos inevitably results. Steamboy adds a touch of innocent wonder to the formula through Ray's eyes, resulting in Otomo's most human film to date, but humanity rarely seems to be among Otomo's priorities. His films seem far more concerned with the spectacle he manages like no one else in animation.