Released in 2009 ▪ Review posted August 10, 2014
“One, a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. Two, a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. And three, a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.”
Asmiov’s Three Laws of Robotics
As far as children’s films go, Astro Boy is dark. Nic Cage is the voice of Dr. Tenma, a government scientist who creates the advanced robots that power the floating mountain where the upper class lives, literally looking down on the lower-class surface-dwellers below. During a demonstration, Dr. Tenma’s son Toby gets too close to a deadly robot and is atomized. Tenma spirals into denial and makes a new robot that looks just like his dead son, loading it with Toby’s memories and then attempting to raise it as his child, as if nothing happened.
Overcome with grief when his denial starts to fade, Tenma realizes he can’t love this robot because it isn’t completely identical to Toby. To complicate things, robots are considered a servant class in the world of Astro Boy. So, depressed and prejudiced, Tenma kicks his creation out of the house, leaving robo-Toby to survive on his own and to cope with the realization that he’s not a human and that his father no longer loves him. Adventures ensue for robo-Toby, who earns the name “Astro” and learns about friendship, class struggles, dignity, and honor.
Astro eventually returns to put a stop to the floating mountain’s corrupt, militaristic president. When he arrives, Tenma is ordered by the government to decommission Astro so that his magical blue power can be used for the president’s war robots. But Tenma, suddenly finding love for robo-Toby, betrays his orders and they flee together. When Astro starts to fly off to the final showdown with the president, Tenma initially restrains him, afraid to risk the possibility of losing the surrogate he created in a grieving mania, even though he had shunned him only a few days before, and even though no one else is powerful enough to stop the president’s giant robot death rampage.
Here, we have one of the darker characters Nicolas Cage has played. A father incapable of coping with his son’s death, he Frankensteins a robot replacement, only to reject him just as the robot is discovering his very confusing origins. Then, once the robot makes new friends and gets comfortable with his rocket booster legs, laser beam arms, and machine gun buttocks, the father decides he wants him again and selfishly asks him not to achieve his new potential and save the day. It somehow requires suspension of disbelief, despite being feasible mistakes a father might make. The screenplay shares tropes with Pet Semetary, L.I.E., and The Croods, but it did present Cage with a new opportunity to voice an interesting patriarch. Unfortunately, Cage was completely unconvincing.
He does the monotone thing that he occasionally does, but it doesn’t work here. This was not the time for H. I. McDunnough, flatlining at every chance to convey Dr. Tenma’s ever-changing emotions. Cage had a chance to struggle with some dark demons, which could have made his character’s reunion with Astro much more satisfying than it was. Instead, the viewer spends most of the movie wondering why any child would still seek approval from a guy like Dr. Tenma. Cage is not a voice actor, because he has trouble emoting without his body. Accordingly, Astro Boy is a huge miss.
Adapted from the classic manga series, Astro Boy seems from my limited research to stay pretty close to the source material. Series fans probably have a lot more to say on this topic but I found few significant deviations from the original story. The plot is darker than most modern children’s movies, which is great. Dark kids’ films hearken back to movies like The Land Before Time, The Secret of NIMH, and The Black Cauldron, where actions have consequences and life can be sordid. Too bad Cage didn’t bring any of that to his vocal portrayal of Dr. Tenma. Then we might have had something interesting to watch.
- How was the movie?
- Almost good
- How was Nic Cage’s acting?
- Not cutting the mustard
- Did his performance make the movie worse?
- He made it worse, yes