The Tin Man, Frankenstein’s monster, Mr. Spock, the Terminator: we love our stories of non-humans striving to become more like us. Why do we find the story of the almost-human or the partial human so compelling? Probably because it’s a confirmation of humanity’s precious uniqueness. Seeing a poor creature denied flesh or feeling carries poignancy and a strong rooting interest as the machine or alien reassuringly strives to attain what we too often take for granted. From Pinocchio to A.I.: Artificial Intelligence to the newly resuscitated Astro Boy, nothing says loving humanity like an artificial boy.
The manga/anime/video game franchise that is Astro Boy began with Osamu Tezuka’s 1951 comic-book creation of a big-eyed robot boy who longed for parental love. A new CGI-animated feature film begins at the beginning: a mad scientist’s attempt to replace his dead son with a robot patterned on the boy’s DNA and infused with his memories. When “Astro” (Freddie Highmore) discovers he’s not Toby, son of Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage), but rather a super-powered robot boy, his feelings are decidedly mixed. At first, he’s euphoric: he can fly! And as he will later discover, his “blue core” of “pure positive energy” also fuels arm-cannons and—we kid you not—machine guns that pop out of his butt cheeks. On the other hand, his “father,” realizing that a robot cannot replace a son, can’t stand to look at Astro.
Orphaned, the robot boy immediately becomes the target of Metro City’s corrupt president (Donald Sutherland), who wishes to keep the technology under wraps. Astro fends off his well-armed attackers but plummets from his gleaming city-in-the-sky to the garbage-strewn Earth below, a dumping ground for defective members of the city’s robot slave class. At this point, Astro Boy conjures the social commentary of WALL•E and the existential funk of Frankenstein, only two of the plot’s many sources. Adults may tire of the hodgepodge of movie archetypes and references, but they’ll have to admit Astro Boy steals from the best. Aside from the Pinocchio/Tin Man/A.I. archetype, the plot steals from everything from gladiator movies (and their many sci-fi variants) to Freaks to Oliver Twist.
Astro Boy isn’t slavishly faithful to its own source material, which could annoy some among the core crowd. But most kids have no such expectations and haven’t yet been jaded by repeated exposure to the same kinds of action scenes. What Astro Boy has in spades are energy, good humor, and the demolition-derby action of a superhero smash-up, reasons enough to recommend it to grade-school boys. The fanfares of John Ottman and the voice cast—including Kristen Bell and Nathan Lane and—help to make Astro Boy a worthy big-screen spectacle full of sound and fury signifying “be good to your neighbor”—fellow man or fellow robot.