Like a junior high science fair on steroids, Katsuhiro Otomo's "Steamboy" has so many amazing gadgets in its Jules Verne-inspired arsenal that it's easy to be overawed by the machinery. A sometimes stirring adventure story and visual treat with its lush, painterly backgrounds and some virtuoso sequences, it's a stunning-to-look-at film marred by a less than searing pace and some narrative incoherence.
Released in two versions -- a subtitled "director's cut" opening at the Nuart and destined for art houses, as well as an English-language version aimed at mainstream audiences -- the film took a decade to make and blends two- and three-dimensional animation in frequently breathtaking ways.
Otomo is best known as the creator and director of the 1988 anime "Akira," an international breakthrough for Japanese animation that continues to be a cult favorite on the midnight movie circuit. The painstaking care that the filmmaker gives his work is seen in the detailed renderings of 1866 London and Manchester that are the backdrop for "Steamboy."
The filmmaker shuns the worn-out post-apocalyptic scenarios seen in a lot of anime, setting his film amid the Industrial Revolution of 19th century England. At its center is the Steam family, three generations of unconventional, autodidactic inventors who are considered crackpots by the British scientific community, ridiculed for their belief in the power of steam.
Young Ray Steam (voiced by Anna Paquin in the English-language version) is already following in his father and grandfather's footsteps working on a steam-driven unicycle. He eagerly awaits their return from Alaska, where they are working on a top-secret project.
Unknown to Ray is that a terrible accident has estranged the two men, pitting them on opposite sides of a philosophical disagreement that could shape the future of the world. The patriarch, Lloyd Steam (Patrick Stewart), is an imposing figure who could comfortably step into a Soviet propaganda poster. "From risk comes progress," he shouts while pushing his workers during an experiment.
The accident has left Ray's father Edward (Alfred Molina) a disfigured hulk with a Frankensteinian gait who makes Ayn Rand-like pronouncements about the power of science. Edward believes that a nation's security is imperative and that if his development of war machines provides that protection, so be it.
The dispute creates a steam-powered arms race between the O'Hara Foundation, a profiteering U.S. weapons manufacturer, and the British Empire. The foundation plans to display and sell Edward's designs to military leaders from around the world at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace. Dirigibles, tanks and all manner of fantastical steam-powered machinery cruise, roll and soar through the frames of the film, eventually reducing much of London to a shambles.
Otomo has maintained that there is no political message to the film, but there is clearly some anticapitalist, antiwar sentiment at its heart. Otomo takes some shots at the U.S. -- the O'Hara family representative at the exhibition is the founder's ridiculous granddaughter Scarlett, who has a Chihuahua named Columbus -- but the filmmaker does not completely stack the deck, allowing the audience to ponder the implications along with the film's hero, Ray, as he evaluates his progenitors' dueling beliefs.
If the thought of Queen Victoria speaking Japanese is too much for you, you may prefer the English-language version. Be forewarned, however, that it's approximately a quarter of an hour shorter and is weakened by the cuts. The main characters are more strongly established in the Japanese version, resulting in clearer motivations later.
"Steamboy" never really pops its rivets except in several thrilling action sequences, but the sharp imagery and inventive technology make it worthwhile for animation fans. With its allusions to "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Gone With the Wind," a finale that evokes both "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow," and plenty of undergrad discourse in the sciences and philosophy, it makes for an oddly endearing mix of pop culture and brain culture.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for action violence
Times guidelines: Violence is mainly machine on machine, but there are some fatalities.
Anne Suzuki/Anna Paquin...Ray Steam
Masane Tsukayama/Alfred Molina...Edward Steam
Katsuo Nakamura/Patrick Stewart...Dr. Lloyd Steam
Triumph Releasing presents a Steamboy Committee production. Director Katsuhiro Otomo. Producers Shinji Komori, Hideyuki Tomioka. Executive producer Shigeru Watanabe. Screenplay by Sadayuki Murai, Katsuhiro Otomo. Art director Shinji Kimura. CGI director Hiroaki Ando. Technical director Shinichi Matsumi. Editor Takeshi Seyama. Music Steve Jablonsky. Running times: Japanese version, 2 hours, 4 mins.; English version, 1 hour, 46 mins.
Japanese-language version, with English subtitles, at Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223; English-language version at Edwards University 6, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine, (949) 854-8818.