Following in the footsteps of Speed Racer – albeit in animated rather than live-action form – another iconic figure in the history of Japanese animation, Astro Boy, is being updated and reimagined for the silver screen. David Bowers, who previously helmed the Dreamworks animated film Flushed Away, introduced clips and offered a glimpse of the film to a small group of journalists several weeks ago at Imagi's Los Angeles-based production offices.
Astro Boy is based on Osamu Tekuza's 1952 manga, which was developed into a television series in 1963 and subsequently enjoyed multiple incarnations and reinventions in print and on film. The 2009 feature film promises to stay largely faithful to the sleek and simple design of the character, but with a few updates to his look and his mythology. As the second film from burgeoning animation studio Imagi after 2007's TMNT, Bowers said that he wanted to make sure that the story was both fun and substantive.
"I was keen when I started this film to have something to hang all the action/adventure and the comedy from," he explained. "So I really went back to the father-son relationship between Astro and his father. And for those of you who don't know the story too well, Astro Boy is a robot, created by a brilliant scientist to replace his dead son, and this film explores all the problems that come with attempting something like that. It's an emotional story, it's an action-adventure story, and there's a lot of comedy in it as well."
In modern computer animation there seems to be two standards – there's Pixar, and there's everybody else. But watching three clips from the film that were mostly finished, Astro Boy promised to have a style all its own – one that feels decidedly digital but is also elegant; one sequence in particular evoked the bustling cityscapes of the Star Wars planet Coruscant. But notwithstanding Astro Boy's familiar, cylindrical profile, the other robots who inhabit his world are intriguingly weird, operating less according to a semblance of scientific plausibility than the whim of their creators.
Character designer Luis Grane said of the cast, "you have these really elongated shapes - almost like caricatures - that I used for robots and different characters. If I had to do a robot or a building or a tree for this movie, I went for basic shapes inspired by [a variety of] artists, and also inspired by Tezuka's work. And then I created shapes within the shapes. We had 30 robots that are everywhere, so it was fun to explore different shapes. I didn't want to just use anthropomorphic robots but also very abstract shapes."
Meanwhile, Astro Boy was always a character whose appeal sort of hovered between teenage and child audiences, and Grane revealed that they did give him a few extra years in order to alleviate both some commercial concerns and some potential ethical ones. "At the beginning, they wanted to make him a little older than the original one to appeal to a broader audience, so we tried different things," Grane said. "[But] one of the big issues was having him with the classic costume, so they were concerned about seeing a boy flying in underwear, so we put clothes on. But which clothes? So we came up with different costumes."
Admittedly, the footage looks great, although how effectively it will pay off emotionally still remains to be seen. But following a sequence in which Astro's heartbroken father rebuilds his lost son from spare missile parts – by far the most tender material that we saw – two scenes of big-time action promised that the film would almost certainly succeed as a thrill ride: In the first, Astro Boy squares off against a team of "yellowjackets" – human soldiers with jetpacks – before being thoroughly thrashed by firepower that exceeds his own. In the second, Astro Boy's new makeshift family flies to the rescue after the Peacekeeper, a massive robot that absorbs energy from the objects surrounding it, becomes an unstoppable juggernaut hell-bent on bashing those cowlicks on Astro Boy's hair back into his head.
One of the things we didn't see in action, however, was Astro Boy's infamous butt cannons, which one might assume the filmmakers removed in the interest of good taste, or at the very least to prevent the countless questions that they'd eventually field from journalists and newcomers to the character's mythology. But Grane said they weighed heavily which accessories Astro Boy would retain and which ones would be reimagined, and those posterior pistols are still thankfully fully functional.
"We tried to use the iconic features, like the X-ray vision, rocket boots, and the controversial cannons," Grane said. "We were like, should we use these? Is it going to look weird? But for me it was normal. I grew up with him – of course he has butt cannons! So they're in the movie."
Director Bowers and producer Maryann Garger plan to screen at least some of the footage that we saw this week at the San Diego Comic-Con. But until then, what do you think of Astro Boy? Leave us a comment and let us know how you feel about the family-friendly anime hero, much less one with a couple of rocket launchers that come out of his rectum!
For more on Astro Boy, check out Moviefone's extensive feature on the film.