Early in Astro Boy, a squad of combat drones goes into battle against an experimental war robot. One drone turns to his friend and mutters, "I really hate this job." That moment helps crystalize what makes Astro Boy so great.
This review definitely contains spoilers, although it won't give away anything major, that you couldn't figure out from watching the trailers and looking at stills.
So you probably already know what Astro Boy is about: there's a scientist, Dr. Tenma, and his brilliant little boy, Toby, gets killed. So Dr. Tenma makes a robot replica of Toby, complete with Toby's memories, and gives him the most cutting-edge armaments and power source, so he can never be hurt again. But the robot version can't replace Toby, so Dr. Tenma ultimately rejects him — and he goes off to become Astro Boy.
I've grown to have a healthy appreciation for the manga of Osamu Tezuka — his medical thriller Ode To Kirihito is riveting and totally not what I expected — but writer/director David Bowers added to Tezuka's world-building in ways that totally enhanced the story for me. And a huge part of that was Bowers' vision of a world of enslaved robots, which is both funny and occasionally disturbing.
Bowers, an Aardman Animation veteran who worked on Chicken Run and Wallace And Gromit, lets his Aardman roots show most of all when he's dealing with some of the robots in the movie. From Dr. Tenma's robot servant to a flying a window-cleaning squirt bottle and squeegee, to a robot trash-can dog, the robots are always cute and silly, yet also can't help reminding you of their non-person status in the gleaming futuristic Metro City. A clever, retro-looking instructional film at the start of the movie serves to underscore this point, showing robots being used and then tossed aside, onto the giant scrap heap that Metro City floats over.
But don't worry — at no point does Astro Boy give you a dry lecture about robot rights, or the unfairness of enslaving other sentient beings. Instead, it contains tons of sly jokes and clever moments that make you sympathize and identify with the robots — even as we're rooting for Astro Boy's quest to be recognized as a human.
And that's where Astro Boy gets really interesting. Because, of course, the original story is all about Astro wanting to be a "real boy," like Pinocchio. By juxtaposing that quest with the constant reminders that all the other robots are just as aware as Astro Boy himself, the movie makes the standard "quest for humanity" a lot more complex.
Because Astro Boy is the only robot who actually appears human and is programmed with a real human's memories, he's the only bot with the option of blending in with human society. He's also almost the only bot who's not programmed with Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, which force the other robots to be servile even when they don't want to be. The more we sympathize with the other robots, who don't have the same options Astro has, the less clear-cut Astro's quest for humanity begins to appear.
Some of the most fascinating scenes in Astro Boy deal with this question of "passing" as human — early on, after Astro Boy is created, he thinks he's a "real" boy — but the other robots can see the truth at a glance. Dr. Tenma's servant bot is instructed to treat the robot boy as if he were human, and this nearly causes a robo-conniption fit. "I'm so freaking out right now!" the robot says a few times. And then later, Astro Boy knows he's a robot, but he's trying to live among humans as one of them — except that he keeps having to worry that the other robots will "out" him.
It's not much of a spoiler to say that Astro Boy gets to be accepted as a real boy by the end of the movie — but that only leaves you with more questions, particularly about how this will affect all the other robots. The movie only offers the barest hints that Astro Boy's special status could end up benefiting all his robot brothers and sisters.
There are two things I love in children's movies: world-building and subversiveness. And Astro Boy has enough of both of them to build a thousand giant robots out of.
We already talked a lot about the movie's world-building in this exclusive interview with Bowers and designers Jake Rowell and Luis Grane: the movie takes place in a floating city, which includes an entire mountain levitated above the ground. And we get little glimpses of the history of the development of the robots in this society, especially when we meet a 100-year-old robot named Zog (voiced, rather laconically, by Samuel L. Jackson.)
As for the subversiveness — well, I already talked about the fact that the movie paints Astro Boy as a bit of a race traitor (in a gentle, sly way that will not make your kids bawl, I promise.) But then the film turns around and gives us a hilariously inept trio of robot liberationists — the Robot Revolution Front, three former appliances (including a refrigerator) who make grandiose speeches that remind me of the People's Front Of Judea in Monty Python's Life Of Brian.
Unfortunately, because the members of the Robot Revolution Front are still bound by the Three Laws of Robotics, their biggest plan for defeating the human hegemony is to attack one of the humans with a particularly large feather — and tickle him. A lot.
One of the biggest cheer-worthy moments in the movie is when we meet a second robot who isn't subject to the Three Laws, and who is willing to kick some ass.
Because we don't really want to see Astro Boy struggling against vague, nebulous anti-robot prejudice, the movie gives us two clear-cut villains: the President of Metro City, who wants Astro Boy's super-advanced power source to power a new war machine, and HamEgg, a roboticist who's fallen from grace and now organizes nasty robot gladitorial matches on the surface.
And it's the former villain, the President, who provides one of Astro Boy's few weak spots. He's so transparently a satire on George Bush and other leaders who want to start bogus wars to boost their approval ratings, that he becomes a bit painful to watch. The movie is fairly subtle about its other messages, but whenever the President comes on screen, we're suddenly assaulted by neon signs blaring "POLITICAL MESSAGE." Also, you'll cringe a bit when a scientist explains the difference between Astro Boy's power source (which is intrinsically good and morally pure) and a separate, evil power source, which creates negative vibes and aggression.
But those are minor quibbles, really — the spoon-feeding around the President only stands out because the rest of the movie is so determined to let you draw your own conclusions. There are no easy answers to Astro Boy's dilemma — he feels like a human boy, but he knows he really belongs to the subjugated robot class — and the movie doesn't really attempt to offer us any.
And that's what makes this such a great kids' movie. It's pure, engaging fun pretty much the whole way through, with a few bits of sadness, like when Astro Boy's flesh-and-blood model dies (there's no blood; he just vanishes.) But the movie takes the "kid caught between two worlds" plot you've seen a million times before and adds an extra layer of weirdness. Both you and your kid will be thrilled by all the zoomy flying-robot action, but you'll both be left debating exactly where Astro Boy should want to belong anyway. And that's definitely one of the hallmarks of a good movie.