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Astro Boy Review: 3D Animation, 2D Politics

John on October 25, 2009 at 3:44 pm

I took the kids to see Astro Boy yesterday afternoon. Both my girls, 8 and 5, thought it was great. Me…not as much.astroboy1963

I should say that I’m a big, big fan of Japanese entertainment exports for kids. I’ve written about my love for Ultraman and Johnny Sokko. I was one of the few people who thought Speed Racer was a great kids film. Add to that list Astro Boy, which I saw on TV in the early 70s and have loved ever since. It’s terrific wish fulfillment. A boy who is also a super powerful robot who can fly. What’s not to like if you’re six (or twelve)?

Unfortunately, in its transition to a feature film, Astro Boy seems to have taken a detour through knee-jerk Hollywood. And so the villain of the story is a man running for President who is militaristic, stupid and only cares about power. His plan is to start a war with someone (anyone) in order to raise his poll numbers.

Meanwhile the scientists who have populated the world with helpful robots have just discovered a new source of energy. Blue energy was extracted from a meteor which fell to earth. However, the extraction left behind dangerous “red energy.” Blue energy is green (as in non-polluting) and full of generalized goodness. Red energy is violent and unpredictable. The only safe thing to do is bury it. But of course, the villain doesn’t see it that way. He puts red energy into a new war machine, which instantly goes crazy:

astroboy red energy

Meanwhile, blue energy becomes the power source for the hero, Astro Boy.

If you’re hearing some parallels to blue state vs. red state, that’s no accident. There are other political statements throughout the film which bear out the filmmakers bent. For instance, the opposition candidate for President (who never appears on screen) is described as the very opposite of the villain. At one point, the villain arrives at a press conference where a large banner is hung behind the podium: “We’re not ready for change.” Hmm…which recent politician has campaigned on the vague platitude change?

There’s another scene that seemed to betray a certain anti-faith element as well. Astro and a group of kids are about to eat dinner. The only adult at the table asks Astro what they’ve forgotten. He hesitates and says, “Uh…grace?” “You’re right!” comes the reply, at which point the scene cuts to a girl in a knit cap with the name “Grace” who promptly says something innocuous like “Let’s eat!” It’s not a big deal and the writers don’t dwell on it, but grace is a laugh line in this film.

More troubling is a subplot involving a trio of robots who wish to see a “robot-lution.” Their not-so-secret headquarters features pictures of Lenin and other references to communism. But the movie plays the commie-bots’ earnestness for laughs. In fact, because robots are prevented from doing harm to any human by the laws of robotics, the commie-bots’ plan is to buy a feather and tickle people into submission.

On the one hand, this is kind of funny. On the other hand it shows something of a tin ear that the filmmakers think communism, the single most deadly ideology of the 20th century, is comic relief. The real LeninĀ  — along with Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and communist dictators throughout Africa — were not known for tickling their enemies into submission. Again, it’s a subplot, but taken all together it’s impossible to miss the ham-handed liberalism which seems to pop up at every turn.

The best parts of the film are the parts most directly stolen from the source material. Astro Boy’s design is iconic and looks great. The film amusingly plays with his 2D hairstyle (he was originally a manga character in the 50′s), having it shift from right to left depending on the scene. [BTW, another iconic character with a similar scheme - Mickey Mouse, whose ears always appear as circles no matter how he turns his head.] The core relationship between Astro and his father is touching, even if it has been politicized a bit. The art design which is reminiscent of a remake of the show from the 90s looks great.

All in all, it has its moments. If you have little kids, they’ll probably enjoy it. For adults, it’s another story. Unless you voted for The One in ’08, prepare to be beaten over the head with not-so-subtle political messages for 90 minutes. That’s the irony here. The animation is 3D and lifelike, but the unnecessarily political plot is as flat and 2-dimensional as stick figures on paper.

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Category: Movies |

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