Lovely dollops of wit and warmth float through the big-screen version of Astro Boy, the latest Japanese TV cartoon to make it to the big screen. But the look, themes and slam-bang Transformers violence of that 1960s animated series make this every bit as dated as Speed Racer, even if it is easier to watch.
It's about a Pinocchio with rocket engines for legs, X-ray eyes and a swirly just-got-dunked-in-the-toilet hairdo. Like the little wooden puppet, Astro Boy greets the world with an open heart. He was built to replace a lost son by the boy's scientist/father. Dad (voiced by Nicolas Cage) made him indestructible so that he would never "lose him again." But Dad has changed his mind.
"What's wrong with me?"
"You're not Toby. You're just a copy."
Astro (Freddie Highmore) is discarded, like every other robot in robot-happy Metro City, which hovers over littered, polluted planet Earth. Astro meets the surface dwellers, young Oliver Twist orphans (Kristen Bell voices one) who scrounge busted robots for the Fagin-like Ham Egg (Nathan Lane). Astro competes in the arena brawls of the Robot Games, falls in with the comical Robot Revolutionary Front and becomes a pawn in the cynical plans of the Metro City president (Donald Sutherland) to start a war with the surface dwellers just so he can win re-election.
"It's not time for change" is his campaign slogan.
Director David Bowers was an artist on Shark Tale, Prince of Egypt and Wallace and Gromit, so he gets the look right. A subversive streak in the script means that empathy and the dangers of warmongering and disposable consumerism aren't all kids will learn. Will they pick up the Lenin posters in the Robot Revolutionary Front's hideout, references to the classic horror film Freaks ("One of us, one of us!"), Asimov's Laws of Robotics, the writings of Descartes and Kant and the inventions of DaVinci?
None of those keep this thinly plotted cartoon from sagging. An all-star voice cast is almost always a giveaway that the movie isn't all that, and Astro Boy wastes Charlize Theron and Samuel L. Jackson in bit vocal parts.
As Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs proved, the animation bar has been raised, and not just by Pixar. Poor little Astro Boy hasn't a prayer of clearing it.