The plot of Astro Boy might sound a little dark for a kid's movie -- it's got death, robots, and implied class warfare -- but somehow, the end result is a rollicking good time. That kind of makes sense when you remember that this film is based on an anime. And in that peculiar way that Japanese animation has cornered the market on mixing seriously grave themes with super-dazzling cuteness, Astro Boy manages to glide past the implications of its own sometimes grim material and wow you with its wild action sequences alone.
The movie's also got heart -- or at least a glowing blue core of volatile, concentrated energy. But despite what sounds like an insanely heavy backstory, the movie doesn't strive for the kind of heartbreaking poignancy and emotional gravity of Pixar fare. The premise is that in the distant future, society has relocated to a floating metropolis called Metro City -- or, rather, the upper crust of society has. The poor are stuck on the earth's surface (along with the world's misfits, runaways, and other outsiders), where the Metropolites dump their junk.
It also happens that people have come to rely completely on robots to do all the dangerous, menial, or otherwise crappy work in their hovering utopia. Thus, we're introduced to Toby (Freddie Highmore), the spunky and brilliant young son of an important research scientist in the field of robotics, Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage). Tenma is demonstrating an über-powerful new energy source called Blue Energy for an evil military bigwig named General Stone (Donald Sutherland) when Toby's insatiable curiosity lands him in the middle of an experiment gone wrong. The kid is killed in the accident (which we don't actually see), and his dad is devastated. So much so that he takes the Blue Energy nugget from the lab and uses it to create a super-powerful android version of his deceased son -- complete with all of the boy's memories, and jet rockets that can shoot out of his feet.
But soon, Tenma realizes that the android can't replace his son and freaks out on his creation. The boy is forced to set out on his own, falling in with a ragtag group of orphans who live down on the surface, and discovering his own true self -- renaming himself Astro. Meanwhile, his new friends don't know he's a robot, General Stone wants to hunt him down and steal the orb illuminating his animatronic chest, and his dad is coming around to the idea he can love Astro as his own person. If that all sounds kind of gloomy, try thinking about the fact that in most sci-fi, when robots get treated this way, they rise up and cause the apocalypse. Even still, Astro Boy rarely feels scary, or even somber; in fact, sometimes the story feels downright standard. It's undeniably solid, though, and definitely a fun time -- no matter how humorless it sounds on paper.