As a fan of the ’80s animated tv series from my childhood, I was wary of the new Astro Boy movie by Imagi Studios, so I didn’t go see it right away. Besides Astro himself there are only a small handful of recognizable characters, while the rest of the cast is new and generic. The world has been divided into the affluent floating Metro City and the Surface dwellers below. As a fan of Tezuka’s character designs, I was disappointed to see that his distinctive style was not replicated in the film as it was in the latest tv series and video games. And that, despite volumes of source material available, little (if any) was mined when scripting and designing the film. All of these needless changes to Astro Boy’s origin and setting hurt the movie’s chances of a favorable review.
In the original story, Dr. Tenma’s son Tobio is killed in a car crash. In the movie, Toby is incinerated by a military robot gone haywire, infused with the negative power of the film’s version of unobtanium. Dr. Tenma then creates the robot we all know and love in Toby’s likeness. This kind of change in the backstory doesn’t matter so much, and it lays the groundwork for the film’s predictable plot of a power hungry military general’s descent into madness. I’m not an Astro Boy purist by any means, so this kind of thing is entirely excusable, but the next change is less superficial.
Astro gets blown off Metro City to the scrap heap below. The Robot Circus and its abusive manager have been replaced by a gladiatorial robot tournament and a tinkering roboticist, and he’s nowhere near as evil. We don’t see Astro suffering under the whip of his human master. We see robots being destroyed for the humans’ entertainment, but they are mostly complicit fighting machines, so the message is blurry. And Astro doesn’t earn his name from his daring circus tricks – but by one of a ragtag band of revolutionary robots. One of which is literally a talking fridge. Along with a talking spray bottle robot, these designs are terribly unimaginative and don’t belong in Astro Boy.
In what is perhaps the film’s boldest alteration, Astro’s heart and sense of justice no longer comes from the heart built by Dr. Tenma, but from the positive power of the film’s unobtanium, giving it an unwanted tinge of spirituality (it gives Astro the God-like power to resurrect broken robots). In the tv series Astro often ran into trouble when his batteries ran out, but thanks to the unobtanium he now has an infinite power supply. In effect, Astro appears invincible, which kills any suspense that the film’s final confrontation may have had. Unfortunately, the enemy robot is not based on any particular design from Tezuka’s canon.
It’s sad that most of Tezuka’s unique characters, the often bitter-sweet messages underlying his stories, and his damning portrayal of human intolerance of robots wasn’t faithfully reproduced on the big screen. These changes will no doubt leave fans feeling disappointed, but the film still manages to be entertaining in its own right. Those completely unfamiliar with Astro Boy will likely enjoy the film on its own merits. Despite my gut feeling, it turned out better than I would have thought, and the visuals look great. I felt it was just a little bit too long. As it is, I can still give it a recommendation, though fans looking for a faithful big screen adaptation should be prepared for something different.
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