So this “Astroboy” may not be the most loyal and faithful adaptation to its source material, but that doesn’t automatically make it bad. Deep down it has an undertone of sadness and tragedy with some thoughts about afterlife and the meaning of life that we all ponder. Sure, the target audience for “Astroboy” won’t even understand or care about where writers Tim Harris and David Bowers take the story, but at least “Astroboy” seems to try to have something for everyone. I vaguely recall watching “Astroboy” as a kid but I loved the direction David Bowers took the animated movie where Astroboy becomes a hero who just refuses to adhere to the norms of the robot world, especially when pushed in to a corner. As a robot he’s expected to act like a clunky stupid machine, and when he finds that he garners an attachment and new sense of purpose with both man and machine, he decides that he just can’t harm anyone who isn’t posing a danger to the world.
Toby is a young genius who aspires to be very much what his father is in the scientific world. He holds little regard to robotics and views them merely as tools, but when he’s involved in an accident at his father Dr. Tenman’s lab, he is tragically killed. Incapable of grieving and accepting his loss, his genius father Dr. Tenman in spite of backlash from his peers, creates a robotic duplicate of his son Toby. But as the robot comes to learn of his own mechanisms and wreaks havoc accidentally, Tenman gives up the robot and rejects him. This allows Astroboy to find a new family in the darkness and he finds that sometimes family is what you make it. He especially finds this true when he befriends Cora, a struggling young girl who is quite bitter and grows fond of Astroboy as he proves himself with his newfound family. “Astroboy” doesn’t intend to create a grand villain in the narrative but instead ponders on Astro’s purpose in his form of life and what he’s trying to accomplish in a world where he’s no longer wanted by his creator.
The religious themes are a bit heavy at times, but if you can overcome the thick themes of spiritualism, you can take away something about finding a place in the world and choosing your fate for better or for worse. Bowers and co. opt for a pop sensibility that straddles the line between contemporary hipster and classic manga with character designs who will appeal to fans of anime. All the while, the premise holds true to Astro’s wonky design by allowing him abilities that are at times over the top, and ending the film on a single moment that is pure unadulterated manga from head to toe. The voice work is top notch with Freddy Highmore as the humble and valiant Astroboy who accepts his abilities as an advantage rather than a pitfall while folks like Kristen Bell, Donald Sutherland and even Nic Cage pull in sharp performances. Summit doesn’t create too much of an overbearing new version of Astroboy, thus this new re-invention is charming and exciting while also pondering on life themes for folks old enough to visit such a state of existentialism.
Director Bowers and co. owe a huge debt to “The Iron Giant,” as much of “Astroboy” revolves around dozens of sophisticated robots finding a purpose and looking for a choice in a world that tells them what they should be. All the while, Bowers opts to include some religious overtones, some of which are so thick they tend to border on propaganda and preaching. I don’t mind thinly veiled explorations in to creation and the meaning of life, but when an animated film blatantly dives in to this material, it can be rather irritating. While it owes a huge debt to “The Iron Giant,” yanking certain moments from the aforementioned film, “Astroboy” is a charming and entertaining animated science fiction adventure that doesn’t club us over the head with sensory overload. It’s a low key and exciting bit of escapism that will go down easy and won’t turn the kids’ brains in to pudding. And you have to love that final scene.