Disney has many strengths, and “Real Steel” plays to two of them: telling heartwarming tales about underdogs and offering sweet stories about kids and parents bonding. The latter sometimes spills over into laughably twee territory, but “Real Steel” manages to avoid that. No, this is not a groundbreaking art film. This is a movie to see if you want to watch giant robots fight and maybe get a little sniffly watching an underdog father-son team learn to care about each other while beating the odds.
The year is 2020 and boxing has been replaced with a high-tech version of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots: massive humanoid machines attempt to destroy their opponents, controlled by humans outside the ring. Charlie (Hugh Jackman) used to be a boxer, and now is trying to make a living doing robot boxing, but he doesn’t think ahead. As a result, he’s up to his ears in debt, running from creditors and trying to stay afloat.
His son Max (Dakota Goyo) comes back into his life and is ecstatic to find that his father does the robot boxing he’s obsessed with. He strongarms Charlie into taking him on the road, and when he manages to salvage an early-model fighting robot, he gets Charlie to help him get into the competitions. So now there are three underdogs: a semi-abandoned eleven-year-old, a washed-up boxer, and a barely-functional, ancient fighting ‘bot.
The centerpiece of the film is the relationship between Max and Charlie, and it works. Jackman brings a lot of enthusiasm to his part and has a gift for playing stubborn ne’er-do-wells. More importantly, Goyo manages to be spunky without being annoying. The characters are well-written and it’s fun watching the two of them warm up to each other. Add good use of montage and snappy dialog, and “Real Steel” is a bunch of fun. Director Shawn Levy also helmed both “Night at the Museum” films, and he brings the same comedic touch here.
Of course, what is going to draw most folks, especially the kids it’s aimed at, to “Real Steel” is the titular robot fighting, and it does not disappoint. The robots are created with a mix of animatronics (for close-ups) and CGI (for walking and fighting shots). As a result, they move and interact with humans in a way that is very believable, and that belief carries into the matches and makes them breathtaking. CGI excels at creating non-human objects, and the robots are perfect for that.
At its heart, “Real Steel” is an underdog movie aimed at kids but enjoyable for grown-ups too. It’s a standard underdog story with a new context, and fun enough that it feels shorter than its two-hour running time. It’s probably not for those looking for grit and realism, but the young and the young at heart are in for a treat.