Yes, I’ll be the first to admit it, and I’m not the only one to say it, but “Akira” stands as one of my favorite anime films of all time. Bar none. When it comes to my favorite “Vampire Hunter D” holds the top spot, but if you want quality, you just have to go to “Akira”. Rarely has a film been able to hold up against time. Katsuhiro Otomo’s film experienced many alterations that kept it from becoming a true classic, and I’m willing to get past all that because “Steamboy” ends up being a quality piece of filmmaking from Otomo. Though it’s not a masterpiece, it’s still a very good watch that deserves the benefit of the doubt in the end.
Otomo goes to the future by going to the past setting his story down in 1866 where a family of brilliant engineers have created a Steam ball, a small steam device that can be used as a potentially deadly weapon of war for any country to reign victor. Ra Stim (or Ray Steam) is the youngest male in a family of scientists and is entrusted with the steam ball, and now he has to keep it in his hands and away from rivaling countries and his potentially deadly father who wants it for a floating castle he’s built. Otomo’s film deserves this glance not because of the story but because of the amazing imagery he implants for us. In a world set in 1866, one would think he’d be limited in his vision of machinery, but he takes that groundwork and expands upon it creating an ancient future that’s both amazing and still very true to the time period.
Otomo’s animation looks to be very much of an homage to Lang, where people are grounded in their villages and town unaware of the machine war that would and could take place any day now if the steam ball gets in to the wrong hands. With utterly amazing and excellent animation that really did hark back to the serials of the film’s golden age, and features industrial robots and ships and makes it streamlined and eye catching. The Victorian era atmosphere only really compliments the story of this young boy forced to take a deadly weapon and keep it from those who seek to use it for their world domination. Otomo’s film meanwhile really makes a statement about government imperialism and weapons of mass destruction that could destroy the world if given the chance. Often there are the ends that justify the means to them, and Ray becomes their conscience to take this device and keep it out of their hands.
While Otomo pulls off the hip industrial motif with “Steamboy”, if you’re looking for more in terms of a compelling story and complex characters, then you’d best look elsewhere. While the film is immensely detailed and beautifully animated, there’s few and far between in terms of characterization and actual engrossing plot elements. “Steamboy” is curiously bland featuring characters that are hard to relate to, and a plot that was sometimes too confusing, and sometimes too dull to become immersed in. While Otomo really does show off his knack for amazing machinery, there’s not much here with unappealing protagonists, boring antagonists, and action scenes that were anything but exciting. I knew something exciting and tense was happening during much going on, but why wasn’t I excited or tense? Why is the action more downplayed? Why wasn’t the fact that an evil scientist wanted to take over the world played with more urgency or epic threat?
That said, Otomo’s film has some incredible imagery from the zeppelins that unfold from walls, robot soldiers, and in one truly amazing scene London freezes under the jet steams of the floating castle. That is only further induced by the immaculate animated detail placed within the structures and interiors of the London landscapes and buildings. “Steamboy” is a very fun and exciting adventure that features another inadvertent hero doing what he thinks is right and fighting the odds. The American track features some great voice work from Patrick Stewart, the great Alfred Molina, and Anna Paquin as Ray. Otomo creates another visually unique piece of art. Though it does suffer from being a weak outing from director Otomo, with uninteresting characters, lack of story, and a pretty bland concept, “Steamboy” is a fun and incredibly well animated semi-futuristic action flick that works more than it fails.