By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Dr. Evil's Frisch's Big Boy rocket ship!
No, it's only Astro Boy, another Japanese anime hero with fans in high enough Hollywood places to get an Americanized movie version made. Didn't they learn anything from Speed Racer? Well, maybe that it's wiser to animate cartoons rather than turn flesh and blood actors into them.
Astro Boy is the holy grail of anime, created by Osamu Tezuka in the 1950s as a manga comic book then turned into a 1960s TV series, inventing the Japanese animation genre. I know that only because I looked it up on Wikipedia, which isn't entirely reliable but anime cultists won't stand for misinformation. Such obsessives are the best audience for Astro Boy while masses already gorged on better 'toons this year shrug it off.
The setup is a high-tech reverse take on Pinocchio, with a precocious boy named Toby (voice of Freddie Highmore) dying in a laboratory accident and then being reincarnated as a robot by his scientist father (Nicolas Cage). Although uploaded with Toby's memories and personality — plus weaponry — Dad rejects the replacement.
Astro Boy, as he's called, becomes a wanted robot, hunted by a hawkish president (Donald Sutherland) for use as a weapon of mass destruction. Any resemblance to a former U.S. president isn't coincidental, along with the fact that robot power sources are either blue (good guys) or red (bad guys), like states on election day. Political allegory is a staple of anime but seldom so heavy-handed.
Astro Boy escapes from floating Metro City to Earth below, a wasteland of refuse that WALL-E couldn't clean up. Earth is where only the poorest humans live, including a juvenile gang scavenging parts for Hamegg (Nathan Lane) to assemble and sell as rock 'em, sock 'em robots. Eventually all of these issues converge in an admittedly spectacular climax. Getting there is the rub.
Director and co-writer David Bowers (Flushed Away) lovingly crafts a kinetic tribute to Tezuka's source material, filled with whooshing action and finely detailed backgrounds. But even though this is Astro Boy's screen debut, each character and situation seems familiar from other movies, as if The Iron Giant, Monsters vs. Aliens and Robots already bled Tezuka's legacy dry.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.