Astro Boy posterGreen lightAll too well conditioned by cinema’s dispiriting habit of transforming old school animated TV shows into retch-a-rific buckets of movie lard enjoyed only by the thoroughly forgiving, the morbidly curious and the criminally tasteless, I must admit to not having very high hopes – along with everybody else in the sane world – for Astro Boy’s new-fangled big screen reboot. The cinematic forays of his retro toon colleagues have, after all, set almost unbelievably low standards (think Garfield, think Inspector Gadget, think Scooby Doo), though this time around the vision comes not from Hollywood but from Hong Kong-based animation studio Imagi which is, as this movie amply demonstrates, a very good thing.

Studded with a particularly impressive voice cast (Nicolas Cage, Donald Sutherland, Samuel L Jackson, Freddie Highmore, Charlize Theron, Bill Nighy, Nathan Lane…) and a gleaming CGI surface that looks like the cinema screen has been hit by an electronic rainbow, the English version of Astro Boy nevertheless arrives in Australian cinemas conspicuously bereft of fanfare, hype or anything vaguely resembling anticipation (the Tupperware party at my place on the weekend generated more of a stir). Where is the excessive marketing budget, the media saturation, the clandestine advertising stooges paid to talk about Astro Boy’s return on street corners? Have I by sheer happenstance missed the TV spots, the bus shelter ads, the happy meal combos, the awful ubiquitousness of a well-funded PR blitz? Or could it be that Hoyts are convinced they have a dud on their hands and just don’t have their hearts into winning public favour again for the little boy with rockets for legs and a shiny blue energy chip instead of a heart?

Pity, because Astro Boy is a shocking movie, in the sense that the one massive shock is it’s actually quite good: fast, funny, tongue in cheek, and unafraid to communicative deep themes to young audiences – grief, bereavement, loss, finding one’s place, what it means to be humane etcetera – without over simplifying or over sentimentalising the material. It also dedicates a surprising amount of time developing Astro Boy’s interpersonal relationships.

Those who vaguely recall watching the TV show in their youth may not remember the lingering sadness at the story’s core, its premise – similar to that of Pinocchio – built atop a broken-hearted father’s grief. Dr Tenma (voice of Nicolas Cage) is a brilliant scientist who loses his brilliant son Toby in a horrible accident. All that remains is the boy’s hat and a strand of his hair; Tenma uses the hair to make a robotic replica who looks like a dead ringer and has been installed with Toby’s memories. Like the robots in Blade Runner, he thinks he is human, at least initially. Realising that Toby was (duh) irreplaceable, Tenma does an Anchor Man (“I immediately regret this decision!”) and outcasts his creation. Astro Boys goes into the big wide world and finds himself.

The movie is set on Metro City, a floating city where robots are slaves and are mis-used, abused, insulted and given menial jobs (If this were a George Romero production, the final scene would be a fiery “how could we?” condemnation of human bigotry). Below, on Earth’s ravaged surface, freaky discarded zombie-looking bots roam about like vagabonds.

Nicolas Cage’s voice work proves his presence can be stifling even when he isn’t seen, his slow wannabe-cool drawl funking up pivotal scenes. The highlight voice-wise comes from Donald Sutherland, who  – no surprises here – plays the baddie, an obnoxious war-hungry conservative politician hell bent on getting re-elected. In the sector of ever-bankable nefarious voices in Hollywood, Sutherland is matched only by the venomously smooth Alan Rickman.

There is nothing particularly innovative about director David Bowers’s approach, but it’s nice that he is genuinely more interested in the character’s back story than the movie’s obligatory action scenes. Unsurprisingly Astro Boy ends generically, with our diminutive hero fighting a super sized nasty pastie; it’s very “meh” but visually kids will dig it. The look of the movie is a little too glossy and totally expunges the grunginess of the TV show, but in lieu of the current crop of super-glossy CGI pics that was probably always going to be inevitable.

Astro Boy’s Australian theatrical release date: October 15, 2009