Astro Boy (PG)
3 1/2 stars out of 4
In last year's "Speed Racer," the creators of "The Matrix" took a cult 1960s anime TV series and turned it into a garish, headache-inducing, live-action travesty. With far less hoopla, relatively basic animation and a rock-solid story, "Astro Boy" is everything "Speed Racer" was not.
It's also the perfect antidote to the lethargic, angry and naval-gazing "Where the Wild Things Are," last week's bloated misfire of another classic '60s work.
With a huge roll of the artistic dice, director David Bowers ("Flushed Away") and screenwriter Timothy Harris employ little of creator Osamu Tezuka's original concept, yet keep its spirit thoroughly intact. By doing so, the filmmakers will certainly alienate a few of the faithful, but will also snare far more legions of new followers. Diehards will be pleased to know that Astro's pointy, gel-laden "Bob's Big Boy" hairdo remains unchanged.
In addition to being vastly entertaining and whip-smart funny, Harris deftly weaves in subtle political and social commentary throughout without ever psychologically bludgeoning the audience. The movie contains many of the same messages as "Wall-E" but delivers them in a far less dry and more comical manner.
After the sudden and tragic death of his brilliant prodigal son Toby (Freddie Highmore), absent-minded professor Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage) tries to make amends by taking Toby's DNA and birthing the robot Astro Boy. Almost immediately regretting his decision, Tenma unceremoniously turns his back on Astro who has inherited Toby's memories and still impressionable emotions.
After escaping capture at the hands of evil President Stone (Donald Sutherland), Astro bolts from his celestial utopian home and ends up on the surface of what looks to be a post-apocalyptic Earth. He crosses paths with some revolutionary-minded robots and eventually makes friends with a pack of human orphans, who are overseen by the outwardly genial Ham Egg (Nathan Lane), a fallen scientist turned robot repairman.
Drawing from "Frankenstein," "The Iron Giant," "Oliver Twist," the previously mentioned "WALL-E" and even "Gladiator," the filmmakers unapologetically concoct a heavily-spiced but easy to swallow animated stew. Not since the first "Shrek" has an animated feature been this rewording to both sides of the brain.
A note to parents: be prepared to council your easily upset children either directly before or after the film. The early death of Toby is only one of a handful of serious and relatively intense subplots. While the action is fierce and the mood fleetingly somber, there's nothing contained in the film any child over the age of 7 or 8 won't be able to handle.