Sunday, at Edwards Marquee’s screening of Astro Boy, geek dads brought their children to have their hair styled in the inexplicable dual spikes of the 60 year-old anime icon. Hairdressers were contracted by the studio reps to perform this hilarious task. Once inside, adults fell into two categories and children into one. Some adults were enraptured by the modernist retelling of the Pinocchio fable for the 1960’s Japanese nostalgia trip. Other adults recognized a familiar dramatic arc in the story of the boy robot created in the image of a mad scientist’s dead son. In fact, it was the sheer ambition of the story that carried my interest for all of the film’s 94 minutes. The dozens of children in the theater found sporadic humor that I didn’t recognize, and they laughed out loud as the filmmakers wove concurrent story lines: one appealing to adults and one appealing to children. The children even laughed as a joke in their storyline coincided with the film's emotional climax, so I don’t know if the children and I saw the movie in the same way at all.
And I don’t know if Japan's favorite anime films can find enough crossover audience to continue to interest us in their particular weirdness. But Astro Boy is opening in over 3,000 theaters, and judging by the promotional t-shirts being handed out at the press screening, the studio wants to make these relatively low budget features into the newest animation phenomenon. If you’re already a fan of anime or manga or if your kids are susceptible to the considerable promotional campaign, then Astro Boy is a must-see. If you demand the grandiosity associated with modern American studios animated features, then the difference in the style of animation here may distract you. While some of the actors blend their voicework well with the characters, injecting Nicolas Cage was distracting. In fact, despite the long list of big name western actors, this does not come across as a full service wide release animated feature. Some things just don’t translate, and it turns out that merely Americanizing a Japanese animated feature is one of them.
There is a certain cultural literacy in Pixar movies that allows adults to sit through it enjoying it on the level of both Bugs Bunny and The Daily Show, while the youngest among us participate on other equal, but different, levels. The rhythm of the pratfalls and the comic reference points to cultural touchstones bonds us to the material. Much of the physical movement of the animated characters is informed by a visual vocabulary we all share, and it comes in a straight line from the earliest Disney/WB ‘toons, through Hanna Barbera into the recent renaissance of Pixar. There is a warm feeling of coming home to an animated feature, and for all its intent and all the rounding of corners (and eyes), Astro Boy remains foreign in every way.
This is a tough sell for the uninitiated, but a must-see for open minded children and avid fans of Japanese animation.
Astro Boy opens wide on Friday, October 23
Produced by Cecil Kramer, Ken Tsumura, Paul Wang, Francis Kao and Maryann Garger for Summit Entertrainment and Imagi Studios
Starring Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Charlize Theron, Kristen Bell, Donald Sutherland, Bill Nighy, Eugene Levy, Nathan Lane, and Samuel L. Jackson
Directed by David Bowers
Written by Timothy Hyde Harris and David Bowers
Based on the manga by Tezuka Osamu
Rated PG for animated violence, Running Time 94 minutes
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