Who’s In It: The voices of Freddie Highmore, Kristen Bell, Donald Sutherland, Eugene Levy, Nathan Lane, and Bill Nighy. Oh yeah, and Nicolas Cage, being waaaaay Nicolas Cage-y.
The Basics: Astro (Highmore) is a futuristic whiz kid whose brilliant father, Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage), has created a society where robot slaves wait hand and foot on humans. Only Astro isn’t a real boy; he’s a robotic clone made in the image of Tenma’s dead son Toby (creepy, much?) and when Tenma banishes him from home, Astro goes out into the world to find his own path like every little boy must do… You know, by infiltrating a gang of runaways and becoming an arena fighter.
What’s The Deal: It may look like a children’s movie and feel like a children’s movie, but bring youngsters under the age of 10 or so to Astro Boy and prepare to invest in a lifetime of therapy. There’s more dark material in Astro Boy than in its semi-disturbing Disney predecessor, Pinocchio; just imagine that you’re a kid with an emotionally distant parent, you die in a horrible accident, are reborn as a robot, and – despite your handy new capabilities as a weapon of mass destruction – your dad tells you that he doesn’t want you any more. Sniff. To top it off, you make friends on the junky surface of the Earth but your adoptive father is only in it to exploit you. Double sniff! And then, your only friends in the world abandon you. Am I the only one getting deeply depressed here?
Even Scarier: Never mind the psychological darkness in Astro Boy; children actually cried in my screening at the sight of Astro being pummeled by fighter robots and chased around Metro City. Granted, the action scenes are quite thrilling, especially as Astro discovers his powers and uses them to outwit his attackers by flying through the city. But Astro’s enemies clearly want to kill him dead, from the police drones to the chainsaw-wielding gladiator bots to the President of the United States, a thinly veiled, warmongering Bush stand-in who starts a war to spur his own re-election. (Pure fiction, I tell you! Fiction!)
Even Scarier Than That: Somehow, even in animated form, Nicolas Cage has crazy hair. In fact, Cage’s voice performance is so overblown, he’s almost more garish than he is in the trailer for Bad Lieutenant.
What Was That You Said About Slavery? There’s a lot of questionable subtext in Astro Boy that doesn’t get clearly answered. Robots are basically indentured servants that do all those jobs that humans don’t want to do, like picking up garbage and cleaning up after their masters. And yet somehow, Astro is able to unite human and robot kind, obliterate prejudice, and gain the love of his jerk of a father, just by being himself. I don’t buy it; people don’t learn lessons THAT easily, even in the animated future.
Go Ahead, Bring The Kids If They Can Handle It: I’d guess the target demograpic for Astro Boy is about 10-11 year old boys. Any older and they’ll be Twittering through their yawns; any younger and they’ll want to know where little Toby went after his horrible accident. It’s a fine enough adventure, but are you ready to explain to the little ones what happens when children die?