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An icon in Japan, Astro Boy comes to America

John Anderson
Newsday (MCT)

Astro Boy has issues.

Like a lot of kids bordering on adolescence, he feels different. A bit alien, perhaps. His father doesn't understand him. He wants to be accepted. He wants to be normal. And he has rockets shooting out his legs.

Based on the celebrated Japanese manga and anime TV series, the big-budget, 3-D "Astro Boy," being released Friday in theaters by Summit Entertainment, revisits the iconic '60s character, with a topical '09 spin: He may be "Peter Pan," "Pinocchio" and "Oliver Twist" all rolled into one super-powered android, but in his jet wake trails a plume of topical issues, cosmic questions and metaphysical disorientation. If anyone still thinks animation is only for children, this first Astro Boy film will happily disabuse them.

Directed by David Bowers ("Flushed Away"), the action-adventure (and comedy) is set in the futuristic Metro City, which floats above an Earth not unlike the one in "WALL-E" — used up, polluted and, in this case, inhabited only by a vagabond population scrounging for survival. When the famous Metro City robotics scientist Dr. Tenma (voice of Nicolas Cage) loses his son, he replaces him with a robot boy — and then rejects his creation as an unsuitable substitute. Bewildered and wounded, the soon-to-be-dubbed Astro Boy ends up on Earth and has to deal with a culture taught to hate his kind.

If anyone wants to read anything into this, be the director's guest.

"If people don't get it," Bowers said from London, "that's OK — it still plays as a movie. But if they do get it, that's great."

He said at the time he was writing the movie (with "Kindergarten Cop's" Timothy Harris), the world was slightly different, "and I can't help but reflect what's going on in the world in my work. I want people to be stimulated by the movie. You can unplug your brain if you want and you'll still enjoy it. If you leave it plugged in, you'll enjoy it more."

Which is not to say "Astro Boy" isn't an action film with a lovable central character, one to whom museums are dedicated in Japan. But in addition to the epic battles between good and evil — and between Astro Boy and some very impressive monster robots — there's a pervasive subtext about the nature of humanity, and a lesson in tolerance. Just for the kids, of course.

"If you're taught to hate someone or something, and then find out they're not so bad, it's hard to deal with," said actress Kristen Bell, who voices Cora, leader of the Dickensian pack of wild children who work for the Fagin-esque Hamegg (Nathan Lane) and who initially accept Astro Boy as just another human. "She definitely has to struggle with the idea that this kid she likes is a robot."

"I think that it's nice to have that undercurrent in the film," said Freddie Highmore, whose face is known to audiences for "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "August Rush" and whose voice has been heard in films such as "Arthur and the Invisibles." "It's about things everyone can relate to, the feeling of being slightly different for whatever reason and wanting to be like everyone else. But there are issues you don't expect to be raised in this film, the biggest one being about rejection and trying to fit into society. Astro Boy thinks he's the same as everybody else, but he's a robot, and that's the obstacle he has to overcome. Apart from saving the world."

In the original series by "godfather of anime" Osamu Tezuka, Astro Boy was conjured up by a scientist to replace his dead son, but as Bowers points out, Tezuka's scientist wasn't as directly responsible for the death as he is in the new film.

"Also, in the movie," said Bowers, "he gives the robot boy his son's memories, so we get into the question of what is it that makes us human, and what is it that makes a person a person, which aren't in the original." The old Astro Boy, he said, "knows he's a robot from the get-go. He just looks like the man's son."

Bowers admitted to a certain apprehension about taking on a story and character so beloved, at least in Japan, and about whom the Japanese, not surprisingly, feel a bit proprietary.

"At the same time," he said, "the Tezuka estate encouraged me to expand on the universe of the story and make a movie that would play globally. 'Astro Boy' has been very big in Asia and Latin America but hasn't really made an enormous impact on Europe or the United States. They're hoping this might be the movie to introduce him.

"I think it's easy to underestimate a family audience," he added. "Kids are able to deal with a lot more drama than we give them credit for: The classic Disney films like 'Snow White,' 'Bambi' and 'Pinocchio' are pretty devastating at times. But I think kids appreciate drama and with drama here have to be peaks and valleys, so the lower you go, the higher you can climb. And then everything works out happily. And 'Astro Boy' does have a very happy ending. He just has to go through a lot to get there."

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