A feature-length adaptation of the classic Japanese manga, Astro Boy now comes equipped with a recycling message, both in its story and with its screenplay. Parts feel pieced together here and there from other, better, sometimes darker films, aligning the film itself less with our young protagonist and his knack for salvaging old robots and more with the villain's ability to simply assimilate other devices until it becomes one ungainly mass. That said, there's plenty of color and spunk to keep the kids interested; they'll just have to wade through some atonal waters in order to get to the fun. From the start, Toby (voiced by Freddie Highmore) is a whiz kid, taking after his father, Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage), with his penchant for advanced mathematics and an endless sense of curiosity. This curiosity, suffice it to say, does meets an end once Toby sneaks into a military demonstration of the new "Peacekeeper" device and is promptly killed off. Mind you, he simply disintegrates -- to the kids, he's simply gone; the rest of us know what's up, though, and in contrast to something like Up, to name another emotionally front-loaded example, it's a blunt means by which to eliminate our young protagonist. Dr. Tenma then does what any grieving father would do: he builds a robot in Toby's likeness, outfitted with cannons and boosters and such, and then promptly shuns the creation once he realizes that it's no substitute for the real thing.
Yeah, I didn't think Astro Boy was about to share a first act with A.I.: Artificial Intelligence either, but from there, things perk up a bit as the lonely and lost Toby 2.0 journeys down from the hovering Metro City to the junkyard surface below (not entirely unlike Wall-E's vision of the future). It's here that he befriends a bunch of scrappy orphans (led by Kristen Bell) and their answer to Fagin (voiced by Nathan Lane), and maybe, just maybe, he'll come to learn what family is worth in time to save Metro City from the newly re-activated "Peacekeeper."
Director David Bowers (the exceedingly charming Flushed Away) keeps the action lively and, more importantly, comprehensible once the newly named "Astro" does tackle the big bad robot, not to mention several robots before that and the minions of one military-minded general (Donald Sutherland) before that. But kids don't know a bush from a Bush, which is clearly who Sutherland's re-election-obsessed change-wary baddie is emulating. Like the man or not, it's a characterization that would've felt dated after the 2004 election, let alone 2008, and it's distracting for those of us old enough to know better. Just give us a villain, spare us the politics.
Distracting for everyone of all ages are the motley crew of robot revolutionaries who are intended to show up as comic relief in a movie that already has a wacky servant robot who sounds like Eugene Levy AND a pet trash can trying to reveal Astro's true identity to his newfound friends. (Okay, indulge me -- Why would a pet trash can simply be called Trash Can? A bunch of kids wouldn't go for something like Scrappy? No? Just me? Fine.) It's an effort to cram just a few more voices into the cast, a thoroughly adequate ensemble that can barely boast the involvement of Samuel L. Jackson and Charlize Theron as well. (They've maybe a dozen lines between the two of them. Ka-ching.)
Highmore, though, brings a critical sense of wonder to his character that generally livens things up whenever too many plot machinations threaten to bog the film down, and I don't think his character's passing resemblance to Iron Man (glowing power source in his chest, the above-mentioned cannons and boosters) will hurt his appeal with modern-day kids. The film ends with a cliffhanger of sorts, just enough to whet our taste for a simple story of good vs. evil when robot vs. robot wouldn't seem enough on its own. With any luck, any further adventures of Astro Boy will take a cue from its namesake and be a bit more streamlined and a lot more fun.