Appropriately for a film about robots, efficiency is the primary virtue of "Astro Boy," a well-oiled CG-animated superhero pic that makes up in competence and vitality what it lacks in originality. Adapted from the classic Japanese toon, this thoroughly Westernized film will likely have little appeal to devotees of the source material, instead targeting tots and borrowing from a variety of recent animated pics. Slated for an Oct. 23 release Stateside, two weeks after opening in Asia, the film easily should draw sizable family crowds and hold their attention well; whether it sticks in their memory is another question.
The anxiety of influence is a palpable force in "Astro Boy," although it owes just as much to "Wall-E," "The Iron Giant" and "Pinocchio" as it does to its source -- Tezuka Osamu's 1952 manga that spawned multiple cartoon series and bequeathed contemporary anime with a hefty chunk of its DNA. While "Astro Boy" is hardly the equal of any of those, it's nonetheless a cut above this year's thematically and aesthetically similar "Monsters vs. Aliens," displaying flashes of intelligence and a relaxed pace that should please parents who stumbled out of the latter nursing stroboscopically induced migraines.
Action centers around Toby (voiced by Freddie Highmore), a spiky-haired child prodigy who lives in futuristic Metro City, a robot-controlled utopia orbiting high above the Earth, which has become overrun with garbage. Following his scientist father, Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage, whose characteristically breathy, marble-mouthed diction proves an odd fit for the character), to an experimental weapons test, Toby is accidentally killed, and the grieving Tenma creates an identical-looking android replacement, complete with Toby's memories and consciousness (as well as the ability to fly and a cache of fearsome weaponry, for reasons left unexplained).
As detailed in a dapper, retro-styled prologue, Metro City's sentient cyborgs are considered little more than disposable slaves, and Tenma goes to lengths to hide Toby's internal circuitry from him. When he catches Toby fraternizing with the house's mechanical help, however, Tenma becomes disenchanted with his creation and cruelly sets the boy loose.
Dropping down to Earth after an awkwardly timed battle with decidedly unscary supervillain President Stone (Donald Sutherland), Toby eventually falls in with a gang of orphaned scavengers who roam the ravaged surface, seeking out scrap metal for their Fagin-like guardian (Nathan Lane). Now calling himself Astro, the boy passes himself off as a fellow traveler and tries to go about fitting in, soon discovering an ability to revive dead robots from the junkyard.
Dark as all this sounds, the PG-rated pic's apocalyptic elements are more than balanced by its moments of levity and strong (though surprisingly subtle for a kidpic) moral undercurrents. The battle and chase scenes are kinetic and exciting without becoming too frightening or manic, and there's little here to upset any but the smallest children. (That this film should merit a PG rating while last year's far more sinister "Tale of Despereaux" skated by with a G defies all reason.)
Script by director David Bowers and Timothy Hyde Harris is mercilessly streamlined in its storytelling, and save for one very unexpected shout-out to Kant, it refrains from aiming too many jokes above its target audience's heads. Supporting characters are well drawn, particularly a band of robot revolutionaries plotting to overthrow their human overlords but hopelessly hampered by Asimov's first law of robotics.
Animation is topnotch yet stylistically inconsistent, veering from bubbly and Wii-like to photorealistic from scene to scene. Other tech contributions are solid all around, with some excellent visual effects and sound design giving the action scenes extra punch.