Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell, Charlize Theron, Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Nighy, Moises Arias, Donald Sutherland, Nathan Lane
(Summit Entertainment; US DVD: 16 Mar 2010 (General release))
Eons from now, when movies are viewed as antiquated pop culture casualties they seem destined to become, CG will be seen as the stereoscopic 3D of our time, as daft and Smell-0-Vision and as PT Barnum as William Castle and his various roadshow gimmicks. Pixar will probably survive, what with its desire to treat story seriously and character with clarity and creativity, and some will still harbor a soft spot for Shrek, though God only knows why. As for the rest, for the Shark Tales and Fly Me to the Moons, Space Monkeys and Ice Ages, a special place in the Museum of Mediocre Motion Picture History will be reserved, a spot where technology was proven to hinder, not help, the development of inventive and engaging family entertainment.
And the star attraction at the center of the exhibit will more than likely be Astro Boy, a bad idea bungled even more ineffectually by a studio system that believes any moldering old relic from animation’s past (in this case, a beloved Japanese cartoon that introduced ‘anime’ to a world outside of Tokyo) can be spiffed up by the application of computer bit maps. That it deviates so wildly from its source material is not the movie’s main problem. In essence, Astro Boy is the worst kind of proposed eye candy, so empty of narrative nutrition and excessive in popping primary color calories that it threatens to give the viewer dumb-down cinematic diabetes. Then, to make matters worse, it tosses in an attempt at action and/or adventure that’s as pointless as the videogame tie-in mandated by the marketing.
This is the problem facing more CG efforts currently. As costs have gone down, allowing anyone and everyone the opportunity to coattail on the superior efforts of John Lasseter and the gang, quality has literally plummeted. Like the string of sci-fi tripe that followed the release of Star Wars (and the realization that realistic space effects were possible), the ability for a motherboard to dimensionalize a cartoon figure has fostered more junk than a whole squadron of Fred Sanfords. Believing that the gimmick is more important than the game, so to speak, producers pile on the unnecessary visual splendor, stuck in the inane belief that an excess of pretty shapes and designs will keep an audience captivated. Sadly, without a real sense of story or character, the attention span is even shorter than its already miniscule average.
Astro Boy is no different. The plot centers on Dr. Tenma (the omnipresent Nicolas Cage) who allows his beloved son to accidentally die during a military experiment for the bosses of the high in the sky locale known as Metro City. Despondent, he builds a robotic version of the child (Freddie Highmore) and infuses him the “blue energy” (the good kind - evil is represented by “red”, of course). Naturally, President Stone (Donald Sutherland) is only interested in using the power source to fuel his wanted weaponry of mass destruction. Meanwhile, Astro Boy meet-cute lands on Earth and is befriended by Ham Egg (Nathan Lane), a Fagan-like junkman who uses discarded automatons - and a group of scvanging orphans - as the means for making his ultimate fighting machines. With his “blue” abilities, Astro appears invincible. But Stone will stop at nothing to get his way…and his weapon.
Yeesh. With its desire to be big, bombastic…and boring, Astro is indeed the poster Boy for the failing fortunes of the current CG mentality. Look at 2009, for example. The stop motion process came back in a big way, Coraline and The Fantastic Mr. Fox delighting viewers, critics, and Academy members alike. Similarly, traditional 2D animation returned with Disney’s delightful, eye popping The Princess and the Frog. Certainly, CG made its stand, starting with yet another (and quite entertaining) Ice Age film and flailing around with the inconsistent Monsters vs. Aliens and Planet 51. An effort like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, however, proved that there remains life post-Pixar, a place for also-rans to run up huge revenues (and some fairly positive press) in light of pixel powerhouse’s continued domination.
Sure, something like 9 struggled to walk the fine line between serious science fiction and kid vid needs, while the bumbling Battle for Terra proved that interstellar warfare and the pre-adolescent really don’t mesh well. Still, with such engaging, arresting titles from across the pond (The Secret of Kells, A Town Called Panic, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea), few relying on the post-modern method of cartooning, one can sense the cresting of a long unnecessary and highly out of whack wave. Sure, films like Astro Boy continue to make money (especially in their predetermined ‘babysitter substitute mode’, otherwise known as home video) and the studios aren’t stopping the stream anytime soon. In the next few months, we’ll see How to Train Your Dragon, Despicable Me, and yet another Shrek film, just to name a few.
But Astro Boy and its potential (vs. its mediocre realities) more than illustrate the problem. After the fad has faded and the need for something new comes along, retrofitting any old idea into the dying design just doesn’t work. Had there been a reverence to the original, a need to understand post-War Japan, the sudden rise and romance of technology, and the disassociation of a nuclear defeated semi-superpower, maybe we’d have something special. Instead, it’s all firepower action scenes and inane dialogue, characters chattering innocuously before the next slam bang machine gun butt setpiece. Said sequences have an inherent level of basic interest, and Astro Boy‘s sky/land design contrasts could be called clever. But everything else is flat and lifeless.
Maybe Avatar is really a revolution after all. With its amazing motion capture complexity and full realized computer reality, the line between live action and animated is now blurrier than ever. Even better, James Cameron once again proved that proficiency and polish, along with a strong filmmaking ethic, can overcome even the most elemental of speculative fiction plotlines. Sure, Hollywood will always cater to parents and their particular need to keep Junior or Missy occupied for 80 to 90 minutes at a stretch, and Pixar’s perfection will continue to drive a kind of creative competitiveness. But Astro Boy argues that not everyone is up to the challenge. More so, not every attempt at the genre succeeds. In fact, what we’ve been seeing more and more is well-intentioned failures - and sadly, that doesn’t bode well for our legacy. One can almost hear those future museum visitors laughing.