Andy Bockelman: ‘Astro Boy’ flies low along the horizon of fun

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Andy Bockelman

Andy Bockelman is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society, and his movie reviews appear in Explore Steamboat and the Craig Daily Press. Contact him at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@CraigDailyPress.com.

Find more columns by Bockelman here.

'Astro Boy'

Rating: 1.5 stars out of 4 stars

Length: 95 minutes

Starring the voices of:

Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage and Kristen Bell.

Prepare for a shockingly mediocre animated feature with the pointy-haired protagonist of “Astro Boy.”

The futuristic Metro City floats above the Earth, free from the years of pollution that have all but destroyed the planet. This utopia is made possible by throngs of robot servants that provide the city’s residents with lives of comfort and ease.

Responsible for these subservient machines is scientific marvel Dr. Tenma (voice of Nicolas Cage), but his personal pride and joy is his son, Toby (Freddie Highmore), who is on his way to being just as much of a mechanical genius. But when a demonstration for Tenma’s latest experiment goes awry, it results in his boy’s demise.

The guilt-ridden inventor cannot bear the grief, so his solution is to create a robot replica of Toby, building upon his considerable intelligence and exuberant personality with a special energy source that makes him a high-powered wonder.

But Tenma learns the new Toby just isn’t the same, a fact not missed by Metro City’s president (Donald Sutherland), who wants to use the boy for his own militaristic purposes.

Highmore sounds energized as Toby, who takes up the name Astro when he winds up on the Earth’s surface after being rejected by his father. Or would the proper term be “creator?” It doesn’t warrant much of a debate since Cage doesn’t put much effort into Tenma. Unsurprising since the actor’s monotonous timbre has never been one of his assets.

But Sutherland seems actively bored as the characteristically power-hungry President Stone, so much so that it sounds like he’s simply reading off the script. Charlize Theron’s opening narration, stylized like a tourism infomercial, has more charisma.

Not all the voice cast is this dull though — Kristen Bell is fine as Cora, the leader of a gang of orphans Astro meets on the surface, and Nathan Lane is terrific as Hamegg, the Fagin-like adult figure who looks after them. Likewise, Bill Nighy shines as Tenma’s kind, moralistic assistant Dr. Elefun while also playing one of the many robots comprising the secondary cast, which includes Eugene Levy, Matt Lucas, Alan Tudyk, David Alan Grier and Samuel L. Jackson.

In a year full of robot movies, it’s nice to see one that portrays our battery-powered buddies as friendly and not programmed for world domination. The update of Japan’s very first major anime cartoon has a very sleek, flashy design by Imagi Animation Studios, but this techno-age “Pinocchio” doesn’t have the same kind of punch as Osamu Tezuka’s original manga comic.

The skyline of the movie simply looks like that of “The Jetsons,” the lead up to Astro’s creation mimics “Iron Man,” and the robots of the story seem to have been lifted straight out of, well, “Robots.”

The film’s creators may have been following the template of the original series, but in recreating it, they borrow far too liberally from these and other science fiction titles. Maybe this is why certain cast members sound like they could care less about what’s going on.

Of course, the real destructive element of “Astro Boy” is its rusty execution.

Rather than creating a hero in both Astro and Tenma, it practically makes one out to be an accident and the other a monster. Even worse, the movie’s shiny veneer masks a storyline that is nothing more than a Xerox of every other cartoon adventure.

And the line, “I’ve got machine guns … in my butt?” certainly isn’t much of a modification.

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