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Unoriginal 'Astro Boy' full of scraps

POSTED: October 21, 2009 10:00 p.m.
/Summit Entertainment

Freddie Highmore is the voice of Toby, who later becomes Astro Boy, in the animated film "Astro Boy."

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It seems the makers of “Astro Boy” wanted to combine every science fiction theme into one movie.

The story is set in Metro City, a chunk of Earth that was separated from the planet and now hovers above it.
Robots serve the population of Metro City, so the people live a life of leisure. (All of this is uncomfortably similar to “WALL-E,” by the way.)

Meanwhile, the surface dwellers left behind on Earth live in abject poverty. This dual-class society comes straight out of Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic “Metropolis.”

Toby (Freddie Highmore), the young son of prominent scientist Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage), is precocious, brilliant and kind-hearted.
When he dies (more on that in a moment), Tenma extracts some of Toby’s DNA, builds a powerful robot that looks just like him and implants the DNA into the robot.

So the movie also borrows from Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and Carlo Collodi’s “Pinocchio.”

Toby struggles with his identity, unable to decide whether he’s a boy or a machine. He is just one of many robots who seem very human, some of which he will be forced to battle. All of which builds the man-versus-machine into the movie.

These and other classic sci-fi themes vie for our attention, but the filmmakers don’t limit themselves by only stealing from one genre.

Toby, who of course becomes Astro Boy, finds himself discarded among the surface dwellers and meets a band of young, orphaned scavengers who operate under the tutelage of a man who might not be as kind as he seems. That sounds familiar because it’s straight out of “Oliver Twist.” Instead of picking pockets, the orphans find scraps, which their leader, Ham Egg (Nathan Lane), uses to build robots.

Astro Boy befriends one of Ham Egg’s robots, a particularly huge and hulking fellow with a heart as kind as Astro Boy’s. The big robot becomes the boy’s protector, which is exactly the scenario of Brad Bird’s “Iron Giant.”

Few children will be distracted by all this shameless pilfering, but think twice before taking the family on an outing to see “Astro Boy.” Here are a few things parents need to know about the movie.

First, a huge, evil robot kills Toby 10 minutes into the movie. And it’s not an ambiguous, maybe-he’s-just-in-a-coma or “sleeping” kind of death. Toby mistakenly gets locked into a chamber with a robot that looks like RoboCop when it malfunctions and explodes. All that is left of the cute boy we just met is his hat.

After his grief-stricken father resurrects Toby as Astro Boy, Daddy has second thoughts and rejects his creation.
So we watch Tenma heartlessly and directly reject what looks, sounds and emotes like Toby.

“Astro Boy” spends the first act and much of the second ripping off literary classics, then more than half of the movie shows Astro Boy fighting off monstrous, terrifying robots that are trying to kill him. Not catch him or just shut him down in some way — kill him.
I gave “Where the Wild Things Are” a lukewarm review last week, but in hindsight maybe I was too harsh. Because throughout “Astro Boy” I kept thinking, at least “Wild Things” didn’t have a body count.

“Astro Boy” is based on one of the first works of Japanese anime — at least the first to enter American culture — so we can forgive some of the borrowing from other works because the movie’s source material dates back to the 1950s. Even so, this movie does nothing to stand out among its animated brethren.

“Astro Boy” tosses every possible theme at us and crams in copious explosions, gunfire and violence, none of which seems fresh or memorable. It’s just another forgettable hunk of scrap metal ready for the animation junkyard.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.


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