Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Why did I see Astro Boy on Sunday?
I was asking myself that question even when it was Sunday, when I was sitting in the darkened theater waiting for the movie to start. I had this itching sensation that I didn't really want to be there. I was seeing this movie out of some rote diligence to a principle in my head, a principle that states that animated movies must be seen on the big screen in order to soak in the fullness of their grandeur.
I felt even less enthused when a line full of six boys came in and plopped themselves down next to me, in that spasmodic way that spills them over into your personal space. I'd selected my seat -- on the far left of the first raised row, the one with the bar in front of you -- for its relative isolation, especially in a theater that was only a third full. I never imagined that I'd be sitting not only close to, but directly next to, an eight-year-old boy. Yet there he and his friends were. I should add that they were completely commendable audients, with the notable exception of this one random moment when one kid stood up on his seat and yelled something to his mother, two rows back. But that incident was over pretty quickly.
The fact of sitting next to the boys was not, in itself, anything more than a colorful environmental detail that sounds sort of funny in the re-telling. I didn't question why I was at Astro Boy because I thought it made me look like some kind of predator, a 36-year-old man attending a 2:35 Sunday afternoon screening and sitting next to a line of six boys. (Hey, I was sitting there first!)
No, I questioned attending Astro Boy because I didn't have any specific reason to think I would like it. I had only a sense that its anime-influenced computer animation looked pretty polished, and that the character design seemed reasonably good. I didn't have any idea about the pedigree of the writers, the history of Astro Boy as a Japanese entertainment property, or even which studio was releasing it.
Yep. Animation indiscrimination, pure and simple.
And I should have known better. In my piece ranking Pixar's ten films earlier this year -- in which the most recent three occupied slots 7 through 9 -- I came face to face with the realization that animated films weren't casting the magical spell over me that they once did.
So what do I go and do? Yep, I see 9, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and now Astro Boy in the theater. An attempt at a market correction.
In fact, that makes a total of six 2009 animated films that I've seen in the theater, ranked as follows:
1. Monsters vs. Aliens
3. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
6. Astro Boy
So I guess you could say my viewing of Cloudy did have the intended effect, to some degree. At least I liked it better than Up, and yes, I do expect to be cast out of the Pixar fan club after admitting that. Yet its overall ranking out of the 53 films I've seen this year is not very high, somewhere around 23. This from the guy who once regularly ranked his favorite animated film in his top ten each year -- and currently has two animated films ranked in his top ten all time (see sidebar), with Toy Story ranked at #1. (Monsters vs. Aliens currently stands at #15 this year, but will probably be pushed significantly downward by the cavalcade of high-profile releases coming out between now and late December.)
As I was waiting for Astro Boy to start, it occurred to me how perfunctory this trip to the theater was. And as I watched the trailer for Planet 51, due out in a couple weeks, I wondered if I'd be back here for that, maybe in this very seat, wondering the same thing:
What am I doing here?
Astro Boy was not terrible. It had its moments. It had its cool robots (along with its stupid ones), and its cool action set pieces (along with the ones that seemed too intense for kids -- but more on that in a moment). But it's the first animated movie in a long time that I would actually give a thumbs down. I hemmed and hawed about it as I was leaving the theater, but by the time I got home, I put my foot down. Go with your convictions, Vance. Thumbs down.
I guess I didn't want to be reminded of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence that many times when watching a kids movie. For starters (spoiler alert!), the Astro Boy of the title is a robot, not a flesh-and-blood human. You probably knew that already. But what you might not know is that he's a robot designed to look like the son of his inventor, who gets vaporized when trapped inside a military experiment gone wrong. That's right, you meet Toby, the model for the eventual Astro Boy, for about ten minutes at the beginning of the movie before he basically blows up, leaving only his baseball cap behind. I'm not saying you see chunks of little kid raining from the sky, but the fact remains -- this little boy gets killed at the start of the movie. Heavy, and not in a good way.
What follows is a dreadfully formulaic story of the robot simulacrum getting cast out by its creator (and how mean is that, character voiced by Nicolas Cage?), then trying to find his way in the world in the hopes of eventually trying to win back the love of his "father." Along the way Astro Boy meets a handful of precocious kids (who are being looked after by a Fagin-like character, in the umpteenth Oliver Twist reference I've seen in a film recently), and crosses paths with a bunch of British-accented robots who belong to the RRF (Robot Revolutionary Front). Booo-ring. Didn't really want to be reminded of 2005's Robots while watching this, either. Another thing we tend to count on in animated movies, in addition to the visuals: that the script will be good. But the dialogue was almost totally without cleverness, the story irredeemably trite.
And the visuals themselves? Those have to be the saving grace, the trump-all, the real reason I decided to buy a ticket -- right?
Good but not great. A little washed out.
Maybe I'll wait for video on Planet 51.