'Astro Boy' finally flies

Posted: October 22, 2009

"Astro Boy" is based on a popular Japanese cartoon from the 1950s that's lived several lives on television, and now makes the jump to the big screen.

That's the official lineage - unofficially, it borrows from Disney, Dickens, H.G. Wells, Brad Bird and dozens of other sources, and normally all that borrowing ain't good (just look at the value of the U.S. dollar).

And indeed, the first 20 minutes of "Astro Boy," in which a boy is killed in his father's botched lab experiment, are enough to make you wish you were next door in "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs."

The animation is lackluster, the movie fumbles for a right tone, and it just doesn't have the depth to handle something as weighty as the death of a child.

Or the grief of a father (Nicolas Cage), a scientist who tries to resurrect his son by constructing a cyborg replica programmed with his son's memory and personality, a Pinnochio for the space age.

The movie sits there like a misbegotten lump until Astro Boy (Freddie Highmore), as he comes to be known, leaves his family and stratospheric city for the pile of rubble on the planet below where cast-off humans scratch out a living among the trash.

It's there the movie begins to come alive, so to speak, as lifelike Astro Boy takes up with a band of human scavengers. They all work for a Fagin-like salvager (Nathan Lane), scouring massive garbage heaps for robot parts to be used in gladiatorial matches featuring rebuilt machines.

The human mistreatment of robots is a key plot point and theme - it prompts Astro Boy to pretend he's a real boy, and serves as an ironic reflection of the tension between the surface humans and those who live in the clouds, a privileged society run by a warlike president.

Third-act conflict brought about by the president's PR war on the refugees and robots below is contrived and a little too pointed, but it yields some decent action sequences.

The movie never soars like Astro Boy, but it does rise above the lack of promise that prevails in the early scenes, which is a tough thing for any movie to do.

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