After a number of false starts and near misses, the past few years have finally seen the first Hollywood big-screen adaptations of anime and manga. However it hasn’t been the most audacious of beginnings. Speed Race crashed and burned. Dragonball Evolution turned out to be dragon droppings. Astro Boy (2009) took a different approach, not choosing live-action but a fully CG animated international production.
It nearly didn’t ever see the light of day due to the financial woes of Hong Kong-based studio Imagi (producers of the fairly well received Ninja Turtles reboot TMNT). Many otaku will have already written this off without having seen so much as a single frame, such is their belief that anything Japanese is automatically superior to anything else. I feel however this deserves to be watched with an open mind. Therefore today as a special one-off I’m giving you two reviews for the price of one! Firstly a straight up review of the film, and then I’ll look at it from an anime fans point of view.
Adapting the 1950s manga by the legendary Osamu Tezuka, Astro Boy is the story of the titular robot who is made to replace the late son of the genius inventor Dr Tenma. When he realises that he will never be his real son he rejects him. Although he faces danger and prejudice in the big bad world, he also makes friends and ultimately finds his purpose and becomes a hero.
Contrary to what many may be expecting this is not a bad film by any means. The animation may not be up to Pixar standards but it’s slick and polished and the design work is excellent. There are a number of well done setpieces and the plot moves quickly so young viewers will not get bored. The sci-fi setting makes it stand out from the sea of CGI cartoons out there today. This is a solid, above average kids film, and if you’re looking for a film to entertain some young’uns that won’t turn your brain to mush then you could do a lot worse. There’s a sprinkling of decent extras on the disc, and it is also available on Blu-ray (not screened).
As for the anime fan perspective? Will the God Of Manga be spinning in his grave? I don’t think so. This is no masterpiece, but it is surprisingly respectful to the source material. The fear of fans when hearing that a beloved property is being made into a film by the Hollywood machine is that it will be a mere cash-in. Trading on the brand recognition of the name it will throw out everything that made the original great. This isn’t the case here. The film makers’ love for the original is clear. The visuals are a fitting rendering of Tezuka’s style, with some characters looking like they walked off the page of his manga. References, visual and otherwise to his works are littered throughout the film, and there’s even a visual homage to Miyazaki’s Laputa in there. Tezuka himself was known for his love of in-jokes and recurring characters so I’m sure he’d get a kick out of it; there’s also a character modelled on Tezuka himself (or at least on his self caricature).
There are some modifications to the plot, but it does a good job of preserving the spirit of the original. The deeper themes Tezuka included are there too. There aren’t that many western animations that would dare to show the on-screen death of a pre-teen. Admittedly the car crash of the original is replaced by a much less messy ‘vaporising’ accident, but the effect is still there. Grief, alienation and robo-racism are touched on too. It’s pleasing that updating the story hasn’t led to dumbing down these themes.
It’s a shame then that this is probably the last Imagi production we will see. They were working on adaptations of Gigantor and Gatchaman (a.k.a. Battle of The Planets) and it would have been interesting to see if they built on the promise they showed here. Alas their animation studio is now defunct, and although they plan to continue producing features by outsourcing to studios in China, I wouldn’t hold your breath.
In summary: Far from the disaster you may have feared, this is a highly watchable film for kids or the open minded Tezuka fan. Worth a look if you’re a fan of animation as a whole too.