A show of hands, everyone. If you think it’s a good idea to begin a movie for children by killing off a young boy in an industrial accident as his father looks on, raise your hand. Anyone?
I didn’t think so. And yet, that is how Astro Boy comes to be in this updated version of the Japanese animated series that achieved popularity in the U.S. as a television series in various versions over the years and more recently as a computer game. The title character (voice by an Americanized Freddie Highmore) is a robot re-boot created by brilliant scientist Dr. Tenma (voice of Nicolas Cage) to replace his son Toby, who was killed at Dr. Tenma’s lab when he tried to get in to see an experiment. Devastated by the loss, the scientist creates a super-robot programmed with the memory and mind of his dead child. And then he rejects the robot as an inadequate substitute. Even if the rest of the movie were “The Care Bears Meet My Little Pony,” the loss and grief of the first 20 minutes are so totally dissonant that the film cannot recover.
It’s like “Pinocchio” crossed with “Blade Runner” as Astro Boy goes through an existential crisis in discovering that he may have Toby’s memories and emotions, but he also has hands and butt cheeks that turn into artillery. He ends up being treated as a human by robots and a robot by the humans he meets, abandoned children living on the planet that everyone else has left because it is deemed no longer habitable (and yet somehow they are able to order pizza). In the midst of all of the shoot-outs there are some moments that have charm and some images that show some wit, especially an enormous junked robot that Astro brings back to life with a charge from his blue power source (unfortunately carrying the initials of an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory). But then the President (voice of Donald Sutherland) wants to use Astro’s technology for evil, and everything comes down to shooting. Any nuance or imagination or point is lost in the battle, and so is any reason to see this film.
Parents should know that this film has a lot of violence and peril for a PG, some graphic, with many guns and explosions. A child is killed (off-camera) and his father is devastated. There is brief schoolyard language.
Family discussion: How was Astro Boy like Toby and how was he different? Which of Astro Boy’s powers would you like to have?
If you like this, try: the original series and “Jimmy Neutron”