Astro Boy (review)

Mecha Minstrel Show

Sometime in the future, a few lucky folks live in a floating paradise above the garbage-strewn, hellishly postapocalyptic surface of the Earth. Well, it’s a paradise for some: the meatbag humans have been freed from the drudgery of the workaday world by the armies of robots who do everything from cook and clean to crash-test flying Jetson-style automobiles. Mostly, though, the androids appear to be put to work slaving at the feet of the humans, presenting happily subservient faces to the meatbags while grumbling to their own clearly fully sentient and emotional selves about how they “hate” their jobs, or are “freaked out” by disturbing things the humans do, or how they wish o wish they could have a different life.
It’s creepy, and it’s weird, and it’s something like a mecha minstrel show, particularly in how the film pretends to a “robots are people too” theme yet fails itself to treat them as such. It’s as if someone in the 1850s had made an anti-slavery movie that nevertheless featured blackface minstrelry because, you know, it’s still hilarious, right?

Oh, and did I mention? Astro Boy is for kids!

I’m not familiar with the ur anime, cult favorite 1960s Japanese cartoon about a robot boy that is the basis for this American retread, but I’m guessing it wasn’t this icky. And it may not have been this nonsensical, either, because a lot of the nonsense appears to stem from the attempts by screenwriters David Bowers (Flushed Away), who also directs, and Timothy Harris to shoehorn the story of Toby, later Astro, into the “robots are people too” theme.

See, Dr. Tenma (the voice of Nicolas Cage: G-Force, Knowing) is the resident scientific genius of Metro City, and when his boy, Toby (the voice of Freddie Highmore: The Spiderwick Chronicles, The Golden Compass), is killed — in an accident that is, frankly, entirely the fault of Tenma as both a negligent scientist and a negligent father — he’s so griefstricken that he builds a robot version of Toby. (Mom? There’s no mention of her whatsoever.) He uploads the kid’s memories (there’s no word either on why he had downloaded the kid’s memories in the first place) into the android, who believes he is the meatbag Toby, and tries to pretend that everything’s just hunky-dory.

But if Tenma wants to pretend that this is his lost son, and if this culture has such disdain for robots, even if they are useful as slave labor, why the hell would Tenma trick the metal Toby out with such bizarre robotic accoutrements such as jet-powered feet, superstrength, and the ability to hear and understand robot language? Was Tenma eagerly anticipating, actually, the moment at which he would reject the robot “son” precisely because he’s so emphatically not human just as Toby, now having adopted the robot name Astro, is coming to terms with his inherent machine-ness?

Nah, of course not! Astro needs jet-powered feet, laser cannons in his hands, and machine guns in his butt so he can fight other robots! The bad robots powered by evil red energy instead of nice blue energy!

It gets worse, actually. Astro gets exiled to the garbage-strewn surface where he meets more terrible people who “rescue” trashed robots from Metro City to put into android gladiatorial combat games. Oh, and he meets the members of the Robot Revolution Front, which the film intends as the plucky comic relief — oh, those wacky rebels, demanding they be treated like the sentient, self-aware beings they are, and not like chattel: adorable!

The only excuse that can be made for Astro Boy is that it obviously has no idea how unsettling it is. Nor how drearily dull it is. That may be a blessing for it, for not for us.

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