As versed as I am in cartoons, comics, and superhero lore, the character of Astro Boy has managed to fly under my radar all these years. I'm not alone: despite becoming a hot commodity in Japan and the rest of the world, Astro Boy never gained much of a following in America—and after watching some of the lame old episodes from the '60s and '80s, I can see why. (The original cartoon pioneered kitschy Japanese anime, but it's all still substandard and juvenile, whether we're talking the '60s, '80s, or '90s.)

Unlike 2008's Speed Racer, Astro Boy successfully reintroduces its hero to a new generation—no small feat considering that he first appeared in Japanese manga in 1951. He now seems anything but dated in this computer-animated feature that may be a step below Pixar, but ahead of most other second- and third-rate animated movies these days.

Astro Boy (voiced by Freddie Highmore)

Astro Boy (voiced by Freddie Highmore)

The film focuses on Astro Boy's origins in Metro City, a futuristic world populated by humans and robots, hovering above an over-polluted Earth. Robotic technology expert Dr. Tenma (voiced by Nicolas Cage), along with Dr. Elefun (Bill Nighy), is on the verge of a scientific breakthrough to harness the energy of a star. But tragedy strikes during their presentation for President Stone (Donald Sutherland) when the experiment leads to the death of Tenma's 13-year-old son Toby (Freddie Highmore).

The distraught Tenma uses his skills to recreate Toby as a robot, complete with Toby's memories, personality, and the latest in state-of-the-art defense systems. Yet as lifelike as the robot is, Tenma realizes it can't replace his son and believes he's made a mistake. But before he can be shut down by his father and the crazed President Stone, who wishes to harness the robot's energy source for his own hawkish ideals, "Toby" discovers his powers (flight, super-strength, X-ray vision, durability) and escapes to the Earth's surface. Hiding among other "rejects"—junked robots and orphaned human children—Toby rechristens himself "Astro" and searches for a new sense of purpose while concealing his true nature.

Dr. Elefun (left, Bill Nighy) and Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage)

Dr. Elefun (left, Bill Nighy) and Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage)

The story is familiar, even to those unfamiliar with the Astro Boy mythology. This movie draws on everything from Pinocchio and Superman to Oliver Twist and A.I., with some elements of The Incredibles and Wall-E. At its heart, Astro Boy is the typical tale of a superhero realizing his potential—"To save the world!"—but it's unfortunately loaded with familiarity and conventions.

I wish the filmmakers had explored their story's unique aspects with more depth: the scientist's foolish attempt to recreate what he can never regain, the robot's inability to age with his friends and family, wrestling with fabricated identity, society's wasteful lifestyle, and the tension between human and robot. Yes, it's a straightforward 90-minute movie for kids, but I can't help thinking that Pixar's geniuses would have found a way to infuse more thought and originality into it.

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Cora (Kristen Bell)

Cora (Kristen Bell)

Some of the characters are overly buffoonish in an attempt to gain some laughs. It probably helps to make President Stone less menacing and scary for smaller kids, but he comes across so irritatingly stupid, he hardly seems a threat until the film's climax; Sutherland's portrayal recalls the anything-for-a-laugh delivery of Adam West as the mayor on Family Guy. The humor also feels forced concerning the efforts of the bumbling Robotic Revolutionary Front, three robots that get in the way of the story rather than contribute to it. Again, more creative writing might have salvaged these misfits into something more meaningful and funny; instead, they're (literally) disposable comedic characters used for cheap laughs.

Those quibbles aside, Astro Boy is still a success. Some fans are already rumbling online about alterations to the original story, but this interpretation is quite accessible—a well-animated sci-fi action movie with enough humor and heart for kids and parents.

The sci-fi storyline could be scary for smaller children, if not a little heady—the main character dies, he's reborn as a robot, and despite all outward appearances, he's rejected by his own father. Tricky stuff that's handled cautiously, but for those ages 8 and up, this is an animated feature with a smart plot and plenty of funny asides. And themes of death, regret, alienation, and the search for purpose give the movie added weight.

Armed and (semi) dangerous

Armed and (semi) dangerous

But more than anything, Astro Boy is simply fun to watch. The actions scenes are well-staged, particularly the first one when Astro learns to harness his flying powers for the first time, evading military aircraft amidst the skyscrapers of Metro City. (It reminded me of that wonderful sequence in The Incredibles when Dash has a blast unleashing his speedy powers for the first time.) The animation is sharp too, stylized without seeming too cartoony, like an Americanized version of Japanese anime inspired by Pixar.

Audiences might overlook Astro Boy since it's not being marketed as heavily as Monsters vs. Aliens or Ice Age 3, but it deserves more attention because it's better—strong enough to merit sequels (or perhaps another stab at a TV show). Despite minor shortcomings, Astro Boy succeeds through the sum of its recycled parts.

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Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. List Dr. Tenma's failings as a parent as depicted at the beginning of the film. How might he have loved Toby better and prevented the accident from happening?

  2. Was Dr. Tenma misguided in trying to recreate Toby as a robot? Or was it a form of penance? Does he have realistic expectations of his new creation, or does he still fail as a parent? Is Dr. Tenma's decision to deactivate his robot cruel? Why or why not? Why did he change his mind later in the film

  3. Do you think Astro could have behaved differently early in the film to live up to his father's expectations? Does he earn the love of his creator and his friends later, or is that love unconditional? How does Astro's relationship to his father compare and contrast to our relationship with our heavenly Father?

  4. Astro spends most of the movie searching for his purpose in the world around him. What is the purpose he finds for himself? How does he ultimately recognize that purpose and realize his potential? Explain how Astro's purpose and love models that of Christ's (see John 15:13). Is Astro just a robot, or something more?

  5. Recall the differing characteristics of blue-core energy and red-core energy. How do these qualities mirror our own lives, reflecting good and evil?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Astro Boy is rated PG for some action and peril, plus brief mild language. I don't recall any profanity in the film; perhaps that's a reference to a couple uses of the word "butt" (appealing to juvenile humor). The action sequences recall Saturday morning cartoons, with no serious injuries but one death—though it's depicted as a character merely disappearing in a flash of light/energy. Some themes (the death of a child, rejection from a parent) might make Astro Boy too much for younger viewers. But the movie doesn't dwell on its darker points, and the kids aged 8-12 at the screening seemed to enjoy it.

Astro Boy
Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG (for some action and peril, and brief mild language)
Directed By
David Bowers
Run Time
1 hour 34 minutes
Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell
Theatre Release
October 23, 2009 by Imagi Studios/Summit Entertainment
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