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October 23, 2009|Glenn Whipp

"Astro Boy" plays like "Transformers" for tots, a "Pinocchio" story that stays true to its source material's storied past without adding much in the way of interest, outside of some clankingly obvious political subtext that will alienate people of all stripes.

The kiddie superhero first appeared more than a half-century ago in Osamu Tezuka's manga series and has been subsequently featured in a number of popular Japanese television series, most famously in a black-and-white, 1963 incarnation regarded as ground zero for anime.

Director David Bowers, an Aardman Animations vet who co-wrote the movie with Timothy Hyde Harris ("Space Jam"), nicely blends Eastern and Western animation styles for this CG outing, giving the movie a zippy, retro style that's nicely in tune with its Space Age origins.

The soft colors and shiny surfaces help mitigate a story that's at its best when it lets its images do the talking. A clever opening prologue introduces the floating metropolis of Metro City, which hovers over a garbage-strewn Earth still inhabited by unfortunate "surface-dwellers" and not just Wall-E 'bots.

Scientist superstar Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage in a bit of vocal miscasting) has always been more of a virtual dad than the real thing to his prodigy son Toby (Freddie Highmore). When Toby is taken from him, a guilt-ridden Tenma builds a duplicate, super-powered robot in his place. But then Tenma loses heart and, after a run-in with Metro City's warmongering president (Donald Sutherland), Robot Toby, a.k.a. Astro Boy, finds himself cast downward to Earth.

The movie's middle section drags as Astro Boy meets a bunch of Our Gang misfits, kvetches about feeling alienated and hangs out with some wacky robot revolutionaries, mildly amusing in their Marxist leanings. Less appealing is the villainous president's nefarious desire to mix Astro Boy's positive "blue" energy with unstable, evil "red" energy and create a "Peacekeeper" robot that can start a war and help him win re-election.

A little on-the-nose, don't you think?

No doubt, Glenn Beck will see the movie as part of the Obama indoctrination of our youth. The kids won't get it but will enjoy the big, climactic robot rumpuses, which owe a heavy debt to Brad Bird's "The Iron Giant." Then again, there's very little that the filmmakers haven't borrowed here, making "Astro Boy" feel as copied as its title character.



'Astro Boy'

MPAA rating: PG for some action and peril, and brief mild language

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

Playing: In general release

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