A classic Japanese manga and anime character gets an American polish in the new computer-animated film ASTRO BOY. The film's futuristic setting is Metro City, an island in the sky removed from the environmentally-ravaged Earth below them. This home in the clouds is where the brilliant Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage) creates robots that take care of practically every human need.
When Dr. Tenma's son Toby is accidentally killed during a military experiment at the Ministry of Science, the grieving father builds a robot clone of his boy. Initially the new Toby delights Dr. Tenma, but as it becomes clear that he hasn't truly duplicated his son, the scientist loses affection for him. Chased from Metro City by General Stone's warriors, Toby finds a new home on Earth and is given the name Astro (Freddie Highmore).
Neither silly enough to be fun nor deep enough to be meaningful, ASTRO BOY comes off like a film as confused about its nature as its main character. The sleek, brightly colored movie can be zippy fun when in comic book mode. The action sequences are nicely rendered, as is the animation.
Astro Boy's harried robot servant, voiced by Eugene Levy, and a talking squeegee and squirt bottle provide some sorely needed humor. This space age riff on PINOCCHIO can be glum and heavy handed as it explores such topics as parental grief, political power grabs, and environmental destruction.
ASTRO BOY'S shortcomings may be the result of trying to do too much. The political subtext regarding a power-mad military leader is particularly clunky and doesn't mesh with the more resonant family themes. In terms of plot and character the film is unfocused and unsatisfying. ASTRO BOY may have many of the same parts as the source material, but as Dr. Tenma learns, trying to replicate something doesn't mean you end up with the same original.