The problem with Astro Boy, a computer-animated take on the vintage Japanese cartoon series, is that like its supersonic, jets-in-his-feet hero, the movie itself feels totally robotic. The digitally drawn characters never seem to manage eye contact, the dialogue is mechanical, and the nods to Disney (shades of Pinocchio), to Miyazaki (shades of Laputa: Castle in the Sky) and Brad Bird (The Iron Giant), are just that: nods.
An origin tale, Astro Boy, directed by David Bowers, is set in futuristic Metro City, a floating utopia where robots perform the servile functions and where Dr. Tenma (the voice of Nicolas Cage) is deep into weapons research involving "blue core" (good) and "red core" (bad) energy. Unfortunately, things go awry down at the lab, and Tenma's brainy, bratty son, Toby (the voice of Freddie Highmore), is right in the middle of the awry-ness.
Dead boy he is, only to be (sort of) resurrected as a super-powered 'bot with big round eyes and two pyramidical oil-slick cowlicks. Tenma doesn't know about Toby/Astro Boy at first, but he doesn't seem that grief-stricken about the loss of his son, either. He's too busy dealing with the megalomaniacal Stone (Donald Sutherland), a cynical politician hungry for power.
Astro meets up with a gang of Earth orphans living with Hamegg (Nathan Lane), a pervy coot who has a bit of Dickens' Fagin about him - and who makes his living staging robot battles for a hungry public. None of the other kids, including cute, tween-y Cora (Kristen Bell) suspect that Astro isn't human, but they find out soon enough when he comes to the defense of the exploited metal machines.
There are tiny glints of humor and intelligence at work (a book's cover reads Descartes Before the Horse), and the action and animation rockets along slickly and stylishly. (There's also a Transformers-esque battle scene.) But unlike the protagonists of almost any and all of the Pixar titles, Astro Boy's namesake lacks even an iota of soul.
Directed by David Bowers. With the voices of Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell, Freddie Highmore, Nathan Lane, Donald Sutherland and Charlize Theron. Distributed by Summit Entertainment.
Running time: 1 hour, 34 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (cartoon violence, kids and 'bots in jeopardy)
Playing at: area theatersEndText