25th-century 'Boy'

There’s a certain kind of grumbly 40-something fan-child who goes to the movie adaptations of those comic books, mangas, etc. he loves with a list of unrealistic demands — aspects of the source material either so ridiculous or risky, their inclusion in the movie could quite easily ruin the film within its first few minutes. These are the kind of nerds who wave a dismissive hand when you praise, say, Heath Ledger’s unhinged Joker. “So what,” they’ll say disgustedly, “Dark Knight didn’t even mention Bat-Mite.”

Those fans will be only mildly disappointed with the Americanized Astro Boy helmed by David Bowers (Flushed Away). For this adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s classic manga (later made into an anime series) about a powerful robot outfitted with the personality and memories of its creator’s dead 9-year-old son, the unreasonable demands list reads something like this: Astro Boy better not be wearing pants, and his father better not love him.

You’ll be pleased to know that Bowers and co. at least partially fulfill both of those requirements. Die-hard fans might be disappointed that Astro spends most of the movie dressed like a Gap Kids model, but he finds several opportunities to, um, strip down to his original uniform, aka bikini briefs and thigh-high boots. It’s about as tasteful a compromise as the filmmakers could’ve struck in the post-JonBenét world, and if you’re a middle-aged man complaining that the CGI third-grader onscreen is wearing too many clothes, let me remind you that your opinion doesn’t matter to anyone.

Sadly, the new film doesn’t handle that second, actually important, point so well. In Tezuka’s version, Astro Boy’s emotionally distant creator, Science Ministry head Tenma, builds the robot to replace the son, Toby, he lost in a car accident.But Tenma soon discovers Astro has his own personality and the differences are only painful reminders of what Tenma lost, so in his grief he sells Astro to a circus.

Here, though, Toby is killed by a war machine — one of Tenma’s own creations — and there’s a lot of nonsense about blue and red power cores to complicate Astro’s creation. And since this is America, where all parents love their children, robotic or otherwise, Tenma doesn’t sell Astro to a circus — he simply abandons the boy in a Wendy’s bathroom. Just kidding, of course: Tenma gets a redemptive narrative arc and Astro (Highmore) gets a Daddy instead of a ringmaster. Yay! Actually it’s all pretty lame, and not helped at all by the ridiculous dialogue and voice work, featuring several name actors (Sutherland, Bell, Theron) delivering their lines with the sort of single-take disinterest generally reserved for rushed bargain-bin-anime overdubs.

The creator’s ambivalence toward his creation is the most compelling aspect of the film, but Bowers and the, like, seven other screenwriters and rewriters involved with the project undercut it in their unwillingness to make Tenma unsympathetic. The result is an illogical mess, leaving key manga character Dr. Elefun (Bill Nighy) — who rescued Astro from the circus and raised him in the original — without any real purpose.

There’s plenty to distract you, though. Bowers again proves he’s got a knack for directing computer-animated action sequences, and none of the plot’s confusing terribleness much matters when Astro Boy’s in the air. Also, we get scads of shiny, shiny robots and enough dookie jokes to put a third-rate Dreamworks film to shame.

Notice I didn’t include Tezuka’s disconcerting habit of drawing weapons protruding from Astro Boy’s ass on the list of elements that wouldn’t make it into an American adaptation. Anyone familiar with the current state of non-Pixar animation should know there’s no way the filmmakers would pass up the chance to have Astro Boy ponder: “I’ve got machine guns — in my butt?” — Jeremy Martin

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