Directed by: David Bowers
Starring: Freddie Highmore, Kristen Bell, Nicholas Cage, Bill Nighy, Donald Sutherland
Rated: PG for some action and peril, and brief mild language.
“Astro Boy” is a standard, straightforward kids movie. Sure, it’s formulaic, but the formulas exist because they work. Even this hardened movie reviewer was a bit touched by its tale of a boy trying to find his place in the world. It’s hard not to resonate with a character who works his way from being rejected because of what he is to being the hero who finds his destiny and saves the day.
“Astro Boy” takes place in the futuristic, robot-maintained Metro City, built on a mountain which floats above the polluted, junk-ridden Earth’s surface. When genius scientist Dr. Tenma (voiced by Nicholas Cage) loses his son Toby (voiced by Freddie Highmore) in a scientific demonstration that goes horribly wrong, the scientist goes a little mad, and creates a robot copy of Toby equipped with all the defensive technology he can possibly cram into it. But he learns the hard way that a duplicate of something isn’t the real thing.
The little robot boy doesn’t fit in anywhere, really. His father doesn’t want him. Metro City is a hostile environment once the power-mad President Stone (voiced by Donald Sutherland) learns of Astro’s existence. The surface of Earth seems like a sanctuary for a while — Astro falls in with a collective of orphans and is able to pass for human. But once they find out who he is, he’s not welcome there, either. Soon he’s back in Metro City, up trying to save it from President Stone’s enormous, rampaging Peacekeeper robot. Even though the city rejected him, he still does the right thing and struggles to save it.
Astro is a fantastic hero for a kids film: he’s stronger, faster, smarter, and braver than the adults around him, and has a great destiny if he can only figure out what it is. Finding your place in the world is a vital component to growing up, and “Astro Boy” doesn’t make it out to be easy. Adults will likely enjoy the references to other films tucked here and there amidst the shining computer animation, but kids are the real audience for this picture.
The art design is a mix of the old “Astro Boy” cartoons and modern computer imagery, and it works well. Likewise, most of the voice acting is either solid or rather good. Nicholas Cage and Donald Sutherland both sink into tepid line-reading at times, but Freddie Highmore shines as Toby/Astro and Nathan Lane’s turn as a surface-dwelling robot mechanic is marvelous.
“Astro Boy” isn’t a great or particularly original picture, but it is charming and a fun ride. The animation is well done and the plot moves smartly along from one point to the next without a lot of unnecessary detours. There are changes from the source material, but Astro’s story has been told so many times that it’s hardly surprising. This is a fun film for those looking for kid-friendly entertainment, but if you’re looking for something off the standard, formulaic path, go elsewhere.