In addition to my love and mesmerization with movies from small on, a key visual element in my youth was cartoons – and not just your standard Bugs, Tweety, Taz or Tom & Jerry. No I went full bore along with my brothers for the early Japanese anime complete with dubbed voices. Part and parcel of a 60’s era Philadelphia tradition, Wee Willie’s Cartoon Corners was the only place to get your afternoon fix of futuristic adventure complete with Speed Racer and my fave, the 1960’s black & white Osuma Tezuka classic, ASTRO BOY. So ingrained was ASTRO BOY in my youth that the television theme song was even used for a choreography routine in our second grade school play. Already long beloved in Asia, ASTRO BOY had universal appeal with his goodness, adventure and excitement that permeated the 60’s cartoon culture. After all, how many of you wouldn’t want jet rockets for legs and incredible strength to power through rock walls with just your fist, and still be a darn good friend, although I think we all agree that Astro’s shirtless speedo look wasn’t exactly what we could wear to school. In the 80’s, ASTRO BOY again appeared, sparking the fantasies of another generation. And of course, as seems the way of the world, another 20 years later in 2003, ASTRO took another stab at American audiences with yet another incarnation. But it wasn’t until writer/director David Bowers came along that Astro finally got top honors making his way onto the big screen with 2009’s ASTRO BOY.
For those of you not in the know (which surprisingly included most of the voice cast of the film before embarking on this project), Astro Boy began life as little Toby Tenma. Living in the gleaming, glossy, peaceful and clean Metro City high above the Earth below, Toby is the son of the esteemed scientist, Dr. Tenma. Earth now appears to be nothing more than a garbage heap thanks to a lack of “green” living and environmental correctness. Robots now work side by side with humans, albeit in service capacities like maids, garbage collectors and blue color laborers. (Think “The Jetsons” and you’ll know what I mean.) And while difficult to believe, Toby, a genius in his own right, does seem to have surpassed dad in the brains department. Unfortunately for Toby, given his dad’s importance in the scientific community and the delicacy and impact of a particular project on which Dr. Tenma is working, Toby struggles for his dad’s attention, finding the easy way to gain that is by popping up at Dad’s work, especially on the day of a super secret presentation to the military.
Absorbed in his work and oblivious to his son, Dr. Tenma gushes with enthusiasm over his findings involving Blue Core and Red Core energies. Blue Core is a power source of positive, pure “blue” energy, while Red Core is the epitome of pure negativity. Falling into the wrong hands, either Core could be mis-used or mismanaged, particularly if the military gets involved. But while demonstrating the effects of each and man’s ability to “control” these energy sources, something goes terribly wrong and Toby is killed. Grief-stricken over the loss of his son, Tenma knows what he must do. He has the technology. He has the knowledge. He has the Blue Core. He can “build” a robot to look like Toby, programming it not only with the best of human characteristics but with a strength and invincibility that will keep Toby “alive” and with him always. With his mentor, Dr. Elefun by his side, Tenma moves forward with his obsession, and with the placement of the Blue Core inside Toby’s robotic chest, life’s purest energy courses through the boy’s veins, bringing Toby back to his father. But is it Toby? He looks like Toby. He acts like Toby. But when push comes to shove, Tenma can’t bring himself to love him because this is nothing more than a robot – a fact of which “Toby” wasn’t told.
Cast aside like a worn out pair of shoes, Toby runs, er, or in his case, surprisingly flies away. Quickly realizing that he is not a boy but really a robot, Toby is more confused than ever. Where does he belong? Where does he fit in? But there’s one person that seems to know where Toby fits in. President Stone. A meglomaniacal militaristic leader of Metro City, and up for re-election, Stone knows the secret Toby holds – the Blue Core. And he wants it. Badly. Badly enough to do whatever it takes to capture and destroy Toby.
Soaring away from the claws of Stone and the life he once had, Toby “crash lands” onto the world below – Earth. Adopting the moniker of ASTRO BOY, Toby finds what he has longed for – a home, friends, loyalty and love. But his contentment and joy of being a “boy” with a ragamuffin band of other parentless kids is short-lived when his secret of being a robot is exposed. As the clock wind down, Astro’s humanity is put to the test with battles on Earth and President Stone zooming in for the kill.
ASTRO BOY heralds one of the most impressive voicing casts of the year, starting with Nicholas Cage as Dr. Tenma. He blew me out of the water. The emotion and sensitivity he conveys with tonal inflection propels the character and touches a chord within you. And according to David Bowers, “Nicholas Cage came on because he was a big ASTRO BOY fan already.” As for our hero, Bowers looked no further than Freddie Highmore. “ Freddie [Highmore] has the weight of the movie on his shoulders. He is one of the best young actors of the day.” Bringing a vulnerability to Astro Boy, Bowers also wanted Highmore for his “intelligence and independence.” Likewise for Astro’s friend Cora, voiced by Kristen Bell who is “super smart, super intelligent.” So moved by her own character and involved in the performance and story, Bowers noted that “in one of the recording booths [Bell] had tears running down her cheeks for Cora’s scenes with more emotional stuff.”
After seeing and hearing Bill Nighy as Dr. Elefun, I can think of no one better for the role. He exudes a grandfatherly love and wisdom, serving as the moral compass of the film. But Nighy doesn’t stop with one voice. For Bowers, “I love him as an actor so I cast him twice in the movie – as Dr. Elefun and as Robotsky, the big red robot that’s not very bright.” Probably known best as Davy Jones in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series and soon to be seen as Rufus Scrimgeour, Minister of Magic, in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”, Nighy is no stranger to character voicing thanks to his vast experience in radio theatre. His expertise and enthusiasm are clearly evident. “Everything about the project was attractive. I loved the script. The script is so exemplary. I was happy.” So happy in fact that when Bowers asked him “how would you like to be part of the Robot Revolutionary Front, there was only one answer to that, ‘Yeah! I’d love to be a member. And I turned out to be Robotsky who is a filing cabinet with a head.’ It was good fun.”
As always, Nathan Lane, here as the Faginesque Hammegg, is superb as is Eugene Levy who serves as Orrin, Tenma’s maid. But for me, my money is on Donald Sutherland who is outstanding as the evil President Stone. APPLAUSE, APPLAUSE, APPLAUSE!!!!!!!! Love the character. Love Sutherland who brings so much depth and engagement to Stone. Samuel L. Jackson even enters the cause in what Bowers describes as a “cameo. He’s very impactful. He’s got such a wonderful voice. I wanted it to make a big impression when he speaks.”
David Bowers has a dream team of voice talent. “I made a list of people that I wanted to be in the movie and they all said yes.” And what would make this group of first-choices all say “yes” to ASTRO BOY? The script. “We sent out a script. We sent out visuals. I talked to them about the role and what kind of movie I was hoping to make.” What Bowers has given us is a great role model with a heart of gold, who is courageous and fiercely loyal to his friends all centering on a story that touches so many issues relevant in the world today. As Highmore notes, “There’s the affects of the environment, treatment of certain people in society. It’s about Astro Boy trying to fit in after being rejected by his family. And the fact that he’s an individual trying to change the world which people love. But of course, rules and regulations are against him as they are in society today.” Bill Nighy deems this “a very smart script. Animated films are no longer a sub-genre. They are mainstream. There is a meditation on the family and those kind of relationships and how important they are.” For producer Maryann Garger, “What makes it fresh is this is something unique and different. It feels like a great change.”
A long time animator and storyboard artist, Bowers previously made the jump to directing with “Shark Tale” and “Flushed Away” but with ASTRO BOY also tackles script and story along with his directing duties, believing that his progression through the filmmaking process over the years “has been very valuable for me because I’ve had the opportunity to work with some really amazing people. You learn from experience as you go along and draw upon what they have to teach you. Hopefully, ASTRO BOY is a culmination of all of that.”
With “lots of action adventure and lots of spectacle and lots of comedy” that kids will love, as Highmore noted, Bowers also tackles some more emotional dramatic issues which he believes will be well-received by families due in large part to the fact that “something terrific in Astro Boy comes out of such a terrible tragedy. It’s really heart warming and uplifting.” Something many adults will undoubtedly pick up on is the less than subtle political subtext of “Blue Core” and “Red Core”/positive and negative and the fight for their control by President Stone.
Obviously, animation is the first thing to note in this film. Within moments, you can’t help but notice Bowers’ striking blend of traditional anime but with a refreshing facelift. “I had an amazing production design team. I didn’t want it to look like your average CGI movie. I wanted this to have the Asian feel. So, I studied the works of Naguchi [who designed Metro City] and looked at some images from Hokusai which are very influential in the way the film looks. It has more of an Asian palette.” Differences between Metro City and Earth was deliberately done “to set the two communities apart so you got a sense of Astro going to a very very different world” all of which plays to the psychological as well as visual distinction between man/emotion and machine. While on Earth, the color palette and detail is much richer and beauteous, a perfect contrast to the machination of Metro City.
Surprising is that the animation of this film was essentially complete before the voicing which meant the actors weren’t filmed for expressiveness or mannerisms to be incorporated into the animation, making the voicing even more incredible. The meld between each character’s appearance and the voice behind it is impeccable.
In addition to the story and principals, supporting character creation is also key to the endearment of this film, starting with my favorite, Trash Can. With a nod to R2-D2, for Bowers, a man with a very fertile imagination, “I like animals in a movie. And since this is a robot movie, a robot dog seemed like a really fun idea. Plus, Trash Can is a dog with his own agenda because other robots can tell who the robots are, but Trash Can only speaks in barks. I believe it’s funny to have this character who is constantly trying to tip everyone off to the fact that Astro’s a robot when he’s pretending to be a real kid. And with other characters, like the Robot Revolutionary Front, I just thought they were funny ideas.”
Personally, the one glaring hole in the film is the absence of the tv series theme song. However, on whining to Bowers about it, his reasoning for its omission is sound. “I thought about it. If you go back to the 1960’s theme, it’s really charming, but it really sounds of its time. So I wasn’t keen to include it. I think ASTRO BOY is it’s own movie. It’s a new ASTRO BOY for 2009. I think John Altman wrote a wonderful, wonderful score. And I love it.”
A charming heartwarming story with likeable characters (complete as Happy Meal toys and action figures), superb voicing and characterization, action, adventure and fun, I think the lyrics to the original 1960’s series theme song sum it all up “CROWDS WILL CHEER YOU, YOU’RE A HERO, AS YOU GO, GO, GO, ASTRO BOY!”
Astro Boy – Freddie Highmore
Dr. Tenma – Nicolas Cage
President Stone – Donald Sutherland
Dr. Elefun – Bill Nighy
Cora – Kristen Bell
Directed by David Bowers. Written by David Bowers and Timothy Hyde Harris.