This October, after 58 years and three different TV shows, the world will finally get a feature-length film about Japanese pop-culture icon Astro Boy. The computer-generated spectacle has been in the works for three years, and features top-notch animation as well as an all-star voice cast. And it is going to fail miserably. We don't want it to, because the footage shown at this past weekend's New York Comic-Con was visually impressive, but it will, because it has too many things working against it. Which is too bad, because you'd think that a movie about a boy who's also a superhero robot would do great, right? Yeah, sadly, it won't. Wanna know why? Read on.
Big in Japan, Cult Icon Here
Astro Boy is huge in Japan. He's massive. He's been granted honorary citizenship, and he's practically the country's unofficial mascot. Hell, he can even be seen in Japanese airports, warning travelers going abroad about STDs. And yet Astro Boy is still only a cult character here, despite having at least two of his cartoons air on U.S. television, the first one in the 1960s. The 2003 remake aired on the Kids WB and the Cartoon Network and even had a toy line, but both were canceled. Doesn't that kind of send a signal to anybody that he isn't going to catch on? Ever? Or can we really not accept the fact that something that is so popular to one culture
can't may not be popular with more than a small section of ours? The producers may be counting on overseas box office to make this worthwhile -- Asia, of course, and the 2003 cartoon did well in Britain and in the Middle East -- but unless this is the medium that finally gets through to them, mainstream America still just won't get it.
Japanese Icons + Hollywood = Garbage
While some Japanese properties have made the leap to America successfully (Pokémon, Power Rangers, the Grudge and Ring movies) Hollywood has a bad track record with Japanese pop culture in general. One need only look at two of the biggest failures, both critically and financially -- Roland Emmerich's Godzilla and Jean-Claude Van Damme's Street Fighter -- to see that when Hollywood tries to Americanize (or, worse, globalize) something born in Japan, they fail almost to the point of causing an international incident. (Despite strong G-fan criticism, Godzilla actually made decent bank overseas, but it barely broke even in the U.S.) Now, Astro Boy certainly looks beautifully animated, thanks to Hong Kong-based TMNT animators Imagi, but looks aren't everything. The film is being directed by David Bowers, who has only previously helmed the aptly titled Flushed Away, and it was written by Timothy Harris, whose last produced script was 1996's Space Jam. No matter how good it looks, it can't escape that track record, especially if they've changed too much about the characters that Astro Boy fans love. For instance, since when does Astro Boy wear pants?
No Cute Animals, Not Even Robot Ones
Nowadays, it's hard to get anyone to come see your animated movie unless there are cute animals in it. Look at all of the big earners: Madagascar, Ice Age, Ratatouille, Kung Fu Panda, Bolt, Finding Nemo... Hell, even Cars had cow-like tractors, which is close enough. Astro Boy has robots. Lots of robots. Now, you may point out that WALL-E was nothing but robots (and one cockroach), and it was not only a hit but an Oscar nominee to boot. Unfortunately, nothing will ever be as good as WALL-E -- although The Iron Giant, another robot movie with no animals that nobody saw, comes close. So unless Astro Boy is the best movie ever made (which WALL-E almost is) a lack of animals will spell its doom. Why do you think the upcoming Pixar joint Up, which was also previewed at NYCC, has a ridiculously comedic bird and a talking dog? They'll be all over the advertising for the movie, just wait and see.
Ho-Hum Celebrity Voices
Now, celebrity voices can have their uses. If the name is big enough, and they're game to do promotion for the movie, you can pick up a lot of extra press for your animated film, whereas few entertainment magazines want to talk to an unknown voice actor. But even then, it's dodgy, as demonstrated by the box-office failure of Brad Pitt as the voice of Sinbad the Sailor. So when your "celebrity voice cast" includes Freddie Highmore, Nathan Lane, Eugene Levy, Nicolas Cage, Bill Nighy, Kristen Bell and Donald Sutherland -- none of whom could be called megastars -- it's not really going to help your bottom line. Why not just hire cheaper, more skilled professional voice actors who will make the world more believable and entertaining? Although they're certainly talented screen actors, the somber tones of Cage, Nighy and Sutherland's voices will put most children to sleep. And while Freddie Highmore is arguably one of the most well-known actors under the age of 18 working today, he is way too old to be voicing Astro Boy, and you could tell just by listening to his forced laughs of delight as he discovered his powers in the clip shown at the New York Comic-Con. News Flash: Freddie Highmore is not that famous. If you'd cast a real kid, a young kid, a no-name kid who could have given the character some innocence and personality, you would have made the character a lot more endearing.
Two Words: Butt Cannons
That's right, Astro Boy has boot jets, arm cannons, light-up eyes and machine guns that come out of his butt. Sketches shown at NYCC show that the big-screen Astro will pack ass-heat just like his cartoon and comic counterparts. And while much of America's humor is butt-based, I think butt cannons are where most people will draw the line. No mother wants their child to think of their ass as a weapon. Also, it's just really, really weird.
Check out the teaser trailer below, then tell us if you think we're crazy.