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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Astro Boy

And here we go again with Fishing in the Discount Bin, my weekly look at one of the many DVDs in my video library.  Today, we conclude our retrospective on the films of Imagi Studios with their second, and sadly, final film, Astro Boy.  This entry is originally dated June 9, 2012.

When last we met our intrepid hero, he felt that he had found a friend in the animation house Imagi Studios. Their animated version of the Ninja Turtles, TMNT, was a faithful-to-the-source-material romp that managed to hit all the right nostalgia buttons. So our hero was understandably jazzed when it was announced that Imagi's second offering would be another nostalgic superhero from his youth, a character that has been called the Mickey Mouse of Japan, Astro Boy.

Ah, Astro Boy. Fond memories of this one. It was shown on ITV when I was a boy, the TV station now known as Global Edmonton. I kind of remember stumbling upon it one morning. It was shown every weekday morning at around 7:30AM, right before school.

While I wasn't as nuts for it as I was, say, for Ninja Turtles, I did know that in the essence of Astro Boy was the seed of a great movie. Plus, I had a friend who was much more nuts for Astro Boy than I was, and he told me tales of the original, uncut Japanese versions and their dramatic depths. How the saga of Kommenturk really ended. How his struggles with his brother Atlas really played out. And since Imagi had done such a great job keeping Ninja Turtles close to the source material, I knew I could expect similar with Astro Boy.


The movie opens with a little instructional film explaining how, in the distant future, the Earth had become so dirty and so polluted that the entire planet was pretty much a junk pile. So Earth's best and brightest moved to a floating city called Metro City, that soars above the clouds. On Metro City, humanity is waited on hand-and-foot by robots and lives in an opulent lifestyle.

Now, if you're like me, when you're watching this opening, the first thing that pops in to mind is, "This is an Astro Boy movie, right? Why the hell am I watching Wall-E again?"

We are quickly introduced to Dr. Tenma, Metro City's Minister of Science and the world's foremost expert on robotics. He has a son Toby, who is exceptionally brilliant and seems poised to follow in his father's footsteps. Upon the pressure of the warmongering President Stone, Tenma has invented the Peacemaker, the deadliest war robot ever known. Toby sneaks into a demonstration of the Peacemaker, and of course, the Peacemaker goes into full killbot mode and vaporizes Toby.

Watching his son killed before his eyes by one of his creations, Tenma is driven mad with grief. Tenma, with the help of his most trusted colleagues, undergoes a desperate plan. Tenma decides to build a robot duplicate of his son. Although, in the construction of Tenma's new robot son, and in this revised movie continuity, they do add a nice little explanation. If this robot is to be a duplicate of Tenma's son, why is it armed to the nuts with lasers in his fingers and arms, super-strength, machines guns in its butt, and jets in his feet that allow him to fly? Answer: because of the way Toby was killed, Tenma wanted to make sure his new son would be able to defend himself. Anyway, using a new all-powerful power source known as Blue Core Energy, Toby 2.0 is activated, and all is good...for a while.

While things seem fine for a few days, Tenma starts to notice differences between Toby and this robot duplicate of Toby. That's when Tenma realizes he made a huge mistake. Rather than bring back his son, all he did was create a painful reminder that his son is no longer with him. Tenma sends Toby to his room to confer with his friend and colleague about what to do with this robot child.

While in his room, Toby starts to discover his powers when some wisecracking robots wash his windows outside. And if you're like me, whenever the wisecracking robots (and there are a lot of them) show up, you think to yourself, "This is an Astro Boy movie, right? Why the hell am I watching the Jetsons?"

Elated at his abilities, Toby 2.0 rushes to tell his father, and that's when Tenma and Elefun tell Toby 2.0 the truth: Toby is dead, and this being that thinks he's Toby is a robot duplicate. And Toby 2.0 hears the most painful words a child could hear: "You were a mistake and I don't want you anymore." Horrified, Toby runs away, and does battle with the military, because Stone wants him for the weapons.

Toby literally falls to Earth where he's taken in by a bunch of orphans. But first, he runs into the Robot Revolution Front, who give him the new name Astro. OK, now the Robot Revolution Front is a clever gag. They're hoping to instigate a rise of the machines, but the problem is, all robots are programed to follow Asimov's Rules of Robots. As such, they can't lead a violent revolution. So their plan for an uprising involves feathers and tickling humanity into submission.

Anyway, Astro is taken in by a group of orphans led by Cora, who work for Hamegg. Hamegg fixes up discarded robots, and the kids scavenge the massive junkyards looking for parts. Astro starts lying to the humans, and they accept him as one, and all is good...for a while.

Now, while Astro's lying to everyone, pretending to be something he's not, and you know it's going to come to a bad end when the subterfuge is discovered, if you're like me, you think to yourself, "This is an Astro Boy movie, right? Why the hell am I watching every DreamWorks animated movie ever made?"

The subterfuge eventually comes to and end, and Cora and her friends are all mad at Astro for lying to them, and we see why Hamegg fixes up robots: he makes them battle each other in gladiatorial combat. Astro, however, refuses to fight, doing so only when he has no other option. Astro even saves Hamegg when a few robots turn on Hamegg. It seems that Astro is on his way to reconciling with his friends, when the army of Metro City shows up to claim Astro. President Stone wants Astro's Blue Core Energy to power the Peacemaker.

Astro is brought to Tenma so Astro can be deactivated and the Blue Core removed. Tenma, however, has his doubts, and instead, reconciles with Astro and helps him escape. And...this is a change to the Astro Boy mythology that I liked.

See, Astro Boy's creator, legendary manga artist Osamu Tezuka, was a philosophical soul who believed in the inherent goodness of humanity. And he tried to reflect that in all his works. Now, in the original Astro Boy manga, when Tenma realizes his mistake in creating Astro, Tenma sold Astro to Hamegg, and then pretty much disappeared from the manga. Tezuka's fans always confronted him. "Dude, if you always try to show the goodness in humanity, why did you make Tenma just abandon Astro like that?" And Tezuka himself just couldn't answer that...he knew it was contrary to the themes he liked to portray. So the fact that, in the movie, Tenma takes responsibility for Astro, and says to Astro "You may not be Toby, but you're still my son," seems like a needed change.

The evil President Stone uses the evil Red Core Energy to fire up the Peacemaker robot, and we end with a gigantic robot battle between Astro and the Peacemaker. Since Astro's Blue Core is the polar opposite of the Red Core, Astro makes the ultimate sacrifice to stop the Peacemaker and save Metro City. Thanks to some Blue Core Energy that Astro used earlier to fix up some robots, they're able to resurrect Astro, and Astro finally finds his place in the world.

When it looks like peace is about to settle on the land we get...the end. I hate the end. This giant tentacled alien that looks straight out of a Powerpuff Girls episode appears and starts attacking the city, and Astro goes off to fight it. And if you're like me, that ending makes you scratch your head and go, "This is an Astro Boy movie, right? Why am I watching Powerpuff Girls?"

And that was my biggest problem with Astro Boy. It didn't feel like an Astro Boy movie. As you can see by my thoughts above, they grafted on bits from Wall-E, The Jetsons, the Powerpuff Girls, and the animated film formula that's been in place since Aladdin. It's like the filmmakers said, "Let's throw in everything that's been popular about robots in animation to make this a hit!" And in doing so, they left out what left Astro Boy so good.

There is some good, though. I know Nicholas Cage is no longer the stamp of quality he once was, but his voice work as Tenma is pretty good...a lot more subdued that what we've come to expect from Cage these days. Freddie Highmore, who played Charlie in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is also pretty good as Astro. Donald Sutherland, though, as the evil President Stone, is such a cartoonish supervillain that he seems out of place in a cartoon.

And the music! Oh my God. The music in this film is spellbinding. Composer John Ottman really outdid himself. This music is better than the movie deserved.

And that was Astro Boy.  So with a movie like TMNT, which was very good and a box office smash, how do they throw out their winning formula and make something that deviates so far from its source material?  I blame studio management.  Imagi's third film was going to be a computer animated version of the classic anime and manga franchise Gatchaman  (that's Battle of the Planets/G-Force to us gaijin.)  Paul Dini, legendary writer of Batman: The Animated Series among other things, was writing the script for Gatchaman, and in his podcast, he recently alluded to changes in management at Imagi that wanted to make Gatchaman very un-Gatchaman-like.  I can see perhaps such management having their hand in mucking up Astro Boy.

Astro Boy debuted at #6 at the box office, and quickly tanked.  Imagi closed up shop soon after.  That should be a lesson for all who go to adapt classic superheroes, or any classic media franchise.  Don't go making changes for changes sake.  Trust your characters and trust your story.  The people who've been reading these tales for 50 years will gladly see the new iteration without having to make it "edgy."

So long, Imagi Studios.  We hardly knew ye. 

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