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London Bridge Is Falling Down: A familiar landmark takes a dive in Katsuhiro Otomo's 'Steamboy.'

Steamed Up

Long-awaited anime 'Steamboy' dazzles the eye, but grates on the ears in dubbed version

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

IN THE WORLD of animation, a new film by Katsuhiro Otomo generates the same expectations as George Lucas returning to Star Wars. Arguably the most revolutionary Japanese animated film ever made, Otomo's Akira (1988) helped introduce Americans to the style and themes of this unique genre and increased its popularly a hundredfold. Meanwhile, Otomo kept a low profile, waiting until the mid-'90s to begin Steamboy, a new film that would grow to be perhaps the most expensive and most eagerly anticipated anime of all time.

Despite the monumental nature of this event, however, American distributor Sony Pictures has decided to release the film in its full-length, Japanese-subtitled, 120-minute version only in San Francisco and other select cities. Other markets (including San Jose) will instead get an English-dubbed, 106-minute version. Only the short version has been screened for the press. I can't comment on the long version, but I suspect that the cutting has the same effect as Miramax's recent butchering of Stephen Chow's Shaolin Soccer. The basic plot is still there, but the rhythm and, more importantly, the breathing room are gone. The short version of Steamboy careens across the screen with a noisy, unpleasant clatter, the plot points hitting like so many clanging nails.

Unlike most postapocalyptic anime stories, Steamboy takes place in Victorian-era England. A boy, Ray (effectively voiced by Anna Paquin), misses his inventor father and grandfather, who are working on some top-secret steam-related project in America. Ray receives a metallic "steamball" from his grandfather (voiced by Patrick Stewart), with orders to protect it. After a chase and a fight, Ray winds up at a secret hideout where his father (voiced by Alfred Molina), horribly burned and possibly insane, gives him an entirely different story from his grandfather. The confused Ray doesn't know what side to choose.

On Disney's recent Hayao Miyazaki DVDs, to which Paquin and Stewart have also contributed English dialogue, writers and translators carefully match the English dialogue to the movements of the animated mouths. No such effort has been expended on Steamboy. The English-speaking voices come bursting arbitrarily forth with little cadence or emotion; it's more about speed. Thus our focal point to the characters' souls is lost.

The film still impresses with its awesome, imaginative gizmos, vehicles and chases. When Ray first escapes with the steamball, he climbs aboard a large wheel, controlled from a gyro-balanced center platform. Otomo beautifully and genuinely captures the movement and speed of such a fictitious device. Later, Otomo fixes the film's scale at humongous. He makes a fetish out of grand, grinding gears and cranks and, finally, spectacularly reveals the story's big invention: a monstrous steam-powered globe that floats over the city like a small moon. No matter how big and impressive, all of this pales in comparison to the human soul, which this film simply does not havečat least in its short version. Only a trip to the big city or a look at the future DVD will show if the real Steamboy has any potential.

Steamboy (PG-13; 106 min.), an anime by Katsuhiro Otomo, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the March 16-22, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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