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2009 Imagi Crystal Limited and Summit Entertainment, LLC.
SOARING: Astro Boy takes his new powers for a test flight.

Up and Away

The classic flying robot returns in 'Astro Boy'

By Richard von Busack

IT IS suggested that the Japanese are the world's greatest consumers of comics due to a proud tradition of graphic simplicity and sophisticated woodblock prints. Could we say that animism might be the reason why the Japanese seem so particularly open to the question of whether a machine has a soul? "God of Cartoons" Osamu Tezuka deserved that title in the Japanese comic book and animation industry. He was a Walt Disney who surpassed Walt in the range of his material. His most popular character, his Mickey Mouse, was Astro Boy. The flying robot's starlike cowlicks were even set at the same angles as Mickey's ears—or so Tezuka confessed once. It's surprising how much of Tezuka there is in the film Astro Boy. The CGI venture preserves the winning personality of the undersized hero as well as his look (though he is attired a little more modestly in 2009). While moving like an action picture of today, the graphics salute 1960s manga and anime. Tezuka's favorite caricature of himself—beret, beatnik beard and round worried face—turns up in the crowds. Further retroness shows up in the Mary Blair–style graphics of a documentary, explaining the history of Metro City and of the robots it uses and trashes.In the future, the art deco Metro City floats in the sky like Jonathan Swift's Laputa. Its dictatorial president (Donald Sutherland does the voice) is trying to arrange a war to ensure his victory in the upcoming election. During a demonstration of a new form of atomic power, the son of the city's greatest scientist (Nicolas Cage) is vaporized. Griefstricken, the scientist tries to reincarnate the boy in powerful robot form. Like Dr. Frankenstein, he rejects the creature that results. Stranded in an underworld of the poor and discarded, Astro (Freddie Highmore) learns how the other half lives, before returning to the city of his birth to defeat the power-mad leader. But there's a modern romance, of sorts, with a streety girl child named Cora (Kristen Bell), who wises up Astro to what life is like in the shadows.

The film's anti-militarism is robust. Astro Boy all but name-checks Obama when the evil dictator uses as his election slogan "It's Not Time for a Change." This might explain why there's a seriously unfunny subplot about three inept Marxist robots trying to liberate the enslaved 'bots. The Futurama-ish gags were done so much better in Life of Brian, whence they were stolen. They aren't going to mean a lot to American children who probably haven't encountered anyone to the left of Michael Moore, let alone Moore himself. If anything these wacky-revolutionary bits seem to function as a lighting rod, to show that the left wing has been satirized, too. The fact that the revolutionaries are there at all shows just how much sympathy there is for anti-militarism in this engaging story of selfless robot heroism. The smashing soundtrack by San Jose's John Ottman even makes one disremember, for a time, the immemorial "Astro Boy Theme." This smart cartoon keeps this icon alive in both look and action; Astro Boy is a pacifist hero who doesn't lie back on the job. It's the thinking-child's version of Transformers.

Movie Times ASTRO BOY (PG; 94 min.), directed by David Bowers, written by Osamu Tezuka, Timothy Harris and Bowers, with the voices of Nicolas Cage, Freddie Highmore and Kristen Bell, opens Oct. 23. For movie alerts and giveaways, follow us:

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