Unlike the weird 1960s black-and-white cartoons that charmed a lot of geeky Baby Boomers, this Astro Boy is boring stuff. But the failure to do justice to the Astro legacy is worse than a rebuke to silly fanboys who live in hope that their favorite things are more than mere pop-culture fetishes. Clearly, boy-robot Astro Boy was always a marginal character. Admittedly, most of the Americans who grew up loving him in the mid ’60s were bored, choosing to explore the fringes of television beyond Disney, Warner Bros., or Hanna-Barbera. But they weren’t just indulging themselves in exotica. Astro Boy was amazingly odd, more like an icon than any of the anthropomorphic caricatures like Bugs, Daffy, or Top Cat. Sweet though powerful, Astro Boy was poignantly abandoned by his father, not unlike the American kids who spent so many escapist hours in front of the TV. And in Japan, he was an obsession. There, the Mighty Atom-as Astro was known-existed in the only country actually experiencing nuclear attack. (His creator, Osamu Tezuka, also invented manga comic books and anime cartoons, art forms central to modern Japanese culture.)
To his credit, director David Bowers (who worked for Wallace & Gromit’s Aardman studio) gets the sweetness right here, using young Freddie Highmore for voice characterizations. Wrong or right, Bowers softens the original creepy father-son story, and by relocating the plot from Tokyo to a city floating above a burnt-out Earth, he seems to be trying to remake Astro as a Miyazaki character. But, inexcusably, Bowers turned this gentle action story into boring drivel. You and your children will probably be charmed : to sleep.
And it’s not just an offense to nerds. Bowers had a chance to explore the line between technology and human emotions, or at least go for some kind of extravagant recasting in much the same way the Wachowskis revisited Astro Boy’s contemporary, Speed Racer. What was the point? Bowers leaves the Mighty Atom worse off than he already was in mainstream culture: weird, unimportant, and now dull.