The animated “Astro Boy” is a shiny hodgepodge of “Pinocchio,” “WALL-E,” “Oliver Twist,” “Gladiator” and “Superman,” with some obvious visual touches taken from “The Iron Giant.” As its own entity, though, it’s pretty forgettable.
Director David Bowers (“Flushed Away”), who co-wrote the script with Timothy Hyde Harris (“Kindergarten Cop,” “Space Jam”), gets some help from a lively voice cast that includes Freddie Highmore, Kristen Bell, Bill Nighy and Nathan Lane, and the Art Deco look of the film’s architecture has a classic appeal. But it almost feels like there are too many movies competing simultaneously in what is essentially a pretty standard tale of good versus evil.
The jokes aren’t all that funny and the father-son relationship between Astro Boy (Highmore) and brilliant scientist Dr. Tenma (a typically lethargic and curiously cast Nicolas Cage) isn’t all that moving. There’s a lot going on, but none of it ever really grabs you. (Along those same innocuous lines, the movie is sufficiently bright and colorful for kids of all ages without ever being too scary.)
Based on the Japanese comic book from Osamu Tezuka that began in 1951 — and influenced the anime genre as we know it today — “Astro Boy” traces the origin of a young superhero. He began life as a regular kid named Toby, but after dying in a freak lab accident, his father brings him back to life as a robot containing Toby’s personality, memories and Bob’s Big Boy looks (as well as some tricky gadgets and powers that are never explained).
Once Dr. Tenma realizes — duh — that this eager-to-please robot version of his child is nonetheless inferior and sends him away, Toby flees the floating, gleaming Metro City and lands back on the now-trashed Earth below, where he becomes known as Astro Boy. There, he meets other orphaned children who grubbily root around for spare robot parts to bring back to their Fagin-like father figure, Hamegg (Lane). (The trash can that follows them around and looks like a pug is pretty darn cute, though.)
Astro wants to fit in with the others, namely the street-smart Cora (Bell), and forge some sort of normal life. But high among the clouds in Metro City, President Stone (Donald Sutherland) is after him for his Blue Core: a powerful crystalline nugget that Dr. Tenma implanted in his chest. You see, there’s a Blue Core and a Red Core. The blue one provides a peaceful, benevolent strength, while the red one turns you into a ferocious killing machine.
The Dick Cheney-like president wants to control them both for his ironically named “Peacekeeper,” a burly device intended to dominate Earth: “I’ve got an election to win and I need my robot to be a fighter, not a lover,” he says early on.
Yeah, it’s not a terribly subtle political metaphor.
And so the obvious inevitably arrives: Astro Boy must return to his home to fight the ultimate fight and face his ultimate destiny. He also might run into his dad again. You never know.