review for Steamboy on AllMovie

Steamboy (2004)
by Cammila Collar review

It's easy to see why Steamboy, the long-awaited film by Akira director Katsuhiro Otomo, took over ten years to come to fruition. The movie is positively bursting with words, images, opinions, characters, and sweeping gestures -- elements that in their overabundance, all detract from each other. Steamboy takes a science fiction look at the birth of the steam age, heavy-handedly casting this revolutionary source of power in the light of today's conflict over nuclear energy. This controversy within the story ignites endless debate between its characters over the true purpose of science, often depicting the polarization with too much bluster to ring true. While it may be a drawback for the film's subtext to hit like a bag of hammers, there is little fault to find with its dauntless art direction. The movie is stylistically epic, sparing no expense with frame upon frame of ornately detailed imagery that frequently overshadows the film's high-minded commentary. Steamboy's aforementioned themes about scientific ethics generate a lot of dialogue, and it appears that Otomo tries to balance all this talk with lengthy action sequences. Unfortunately, more often than not this dichotomy of flashy movement vs. talky exposition has a herky-jerky, stop-start effect, leaving audiences alternately bored and over-stimulated. It's a shame, because Otomo remains an articulate filmmaker. Many of his narrative choices are clever and skillful, such as his use the pubescent character Ray to illustrate not just youthful idealism, but the inevitability of change. Sadly, even Ray's eloquence is swallowed up by Otomo's huge cinematic appetite, as the less than compelling secondary characters in Steamboy tend to steal focus. Ray's only peer, a little girl named Scarlett, is possibly the most gratingly irritating character to ever appear in an anime feature film, while his grandfather spends most of the movie wandering shirtless through the dark corridors of a power plant, raving in a Scottish accent and just begging to be made into a Saturday Night Live character. Perhaps Steamboy would be less of a disappointment if its creator wasn't considered by many to be one of the most important names in anime. Regardless, it's a film that reflects ambition more than achievement.