It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen a television episode of Astro Boy. Long enough that I didn’t remember much about the individual other than his characteristic cowlick and jet powered boots. Fortunately, my reunion with this undersized and updated superhero was more enjoyable than I anticipated.
In the movie, Dr. Tenma (voice by Nicolas Cage) is working on a highly technical research project that promises to provide a new source of power for Metro City. He and his fellow employee at the Ministry of Science, Dr. Elefun (voice by Bill Nighy), have managed to separate positive and negative aspects of the energy and are ready to test its capabilities.
Unfortunately, General Stone (voice by Donald Sutherland) is up for re-election and wants to make an announcement that will guarantee his success at the polls. Rather than wait for more controlled analysis, he forces the scientists to immediately insert these volatile resources into his new military android known as the Peace Keeper. Not unexpectedly, the experiment goes horribly wrong and Dr. Tenma’s boy is killed.
Heartbroken, the grieving father fashions a robot in the exact likeness of his son and brings him to life using the blue core of positive energy he discovered with Dr. Elefun. But it doesn’t take long for Dr. Tenma to realize this little mechanical child, known as Astro Boy (voice by Freddie Highmore), will never be able to replace the one he lost. Discarded by his "dad" and hiding from General Stone (who wants to recover the energy core for his robotic army), Astro Boy ends up in a decaying part of the planet with a bunch of orphaned children. It is a scenario torn directly from the script of Oliver Twist. These kids work for Ham Egg (voice of Nathan Lane), the only adult around. By day he sends them out to collect bits and pieces of mechanized junk that he refurbishes into functioning machines.
However, Astro soon discovers that robots aren’t particularly popular with these residents, so he opts to keep his true identity secret while he tries to find his place in the world.
Based on the Japanese manga series created in the 1950s, both Astro Boy and the storyline have undergone some dramatic changes that aficionados of the comic will quickly notice. Yet the robot’s desires to fit in and find a purpose in his life are still evident in the plot. Depictions of violent encounters with the gigantic, morphing Peace Keeper, that absorbs and integrates objects around it (including other robots, humans and parts of buildings), might be frightening for young viewers—although many of the portrayals are no more graphic than an after-school cartoon. More disturbing may be the emotional drama that takes place when Dr. Tenma loses his son and later when the human father rejects his creation Astro Boy.
Still, older children will likely be engaged by this high-flying superhero as he discovers his unique set of super powers. And, given his ability to break down barriers between humans and robots as well as burrow through solid rock, Astro Boy is a champion most parents can approve of too.