Judge Joel Pearce hates to see great entertainment destroyed by moronic studio decisions.
Our reviews of Astro Boy (2009) (published March 8th, 2010), Astro Boy (2003), Volume 1 (published September 28th, 2009), and Astro Boy (1980): The Complete Series (published January 10th, 2006) are also available.
The original anime superhero is back!
Astro Boy has a long and prosperous history. He was first introduced to the world some 40 years ago in the original black and white series. I have faint but fond memories of the 1980 remake series, which was the first incarnation in color. In 2003, Sony made 50 new episodes to recreate the series for a contemporary audience. This new series attempts to capture recent changes in computers and robotics while remaining true to the original tone of the series. It is a highly successful combination. If only the same thing could be said of this DVD box set, which is a total disaster and an embarrassment for all involved.
Facts of the Case
Astro is the most powerful robot in the world, designed to grow and develop as he gains new experiences. Instead of programmed artificial intelligence, he is born with "kokoro," an advanced learning brain that helps him experience emotions. Does this mean that Astro has a soul? After being abandoned by the evil Dr. Tenma, the previous head of the Ministry of Science, Astro is born again thanks to the kindly Dr. O'Shay.
The new Astro Boy series is an oddity in the anime world. It has an old fashioned, family show morality, as Astro wins by doing what is right. The villains are defeated by their own greed and narrow-mindedness.
Of course, some episodes are better than others. The best are masterful, carefully mixing slick action pieces with intelligent moral messages. The weaker episodes are saccharine, with ridiculous science lessons poorly embedded into sloppily scripted adventures. The worst of these are usually centered around simplistic ecological messages, in which Astro protects animals or forests. Fortunately, these weaker episodes are an exception, not a rule.
The plot threads aren't particularly creative, but they are great science fiction. The best of these is the rise of the Blue Knight, a noble but misguided robot who fights for robot freedom. Astro desires peace between the robots and humans above all else, but acknowledges that robots have been horribly treated by their organic counterparts. This battle eventually leads to the lengthy climax of the series, an epic battle between the two sides. Astro must somehow get the two groups to stop fighting, even though he risks being destroyed by both groups. The lead-up to this war is brilliant, with a small misunderstanding spiraling out of control. It definitely doesn't feel like the plot of a children's show, and it reveals the sophistication of the series.
Astro learns and develops through the series. His first discoveries about the human world differ from the epic moral battles that he must face towards the end of his life. This shift happens gradually and smoothly, slowly placing Astro against increasingly deadly odds and more challenging decisions. This kind of character development can't happen in a feature length film. This larger character and plot arc is interspersed with episodes that stand on their own, with trivial-seeming characters cropping up later in the series. Astro Boy is never too complicated or graphic for kids, but this complex structure makes it a delight for older viewers as well.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Now, let's talk about the quality of the discs. Sony has committed several cardinal sins with this set, pretty much destroying the considerable value of the series.
First, the Japanese track is nowhere to be found. There's a Spanish dub as well as a Portuguese dub. The English dub isn't terrible, but it gets annoying at times, and the Japanese alternative would have been nice. Astro Boy is a children's show, but the franchise has a large enough adult fan base that I won't be the only one cranky about this. The dub is too simplified; I suspect it has been toned down for an American audience. Too bad I may never find out. The sound is acceptable, at least, with generally excellent English voices and a strong, clear transfer.
Even worse than the missing original language track, the series has been cropped. In other regions, Astro Boy has been released in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Screen shots that I have seen from the original aspect ratio look great, with beautiful framing and detailed artwork. Sony has chosen to release the series chopped down to 1.33:1. The detail suffers as a result, and characters often hang off the edges of the screen. Nothing dilutes an epic feel quite like bad panning and scanning. They crammed so many episodes onto each disc that there are compression problems as well. It's not a terrible transfer, but it could have been so much better. When I first started watching the series, I had to check to make sure this was indeed the new series, and it wasn't until I saw some obvious CGI that I knew for sure.
The other problems suddenly feel small compared to the major flaw in this set, however. For some baffling, inconceivable reason, Sony has put the episodes out of order on the discs. In a series with this many characters and this much development, this is horribly confusing. Sometimes Astro has friends, and sometimes he hasn't met them yet. The first disc contains an episode involving Astro's sister Zoran, who is not introduced until several discs later. Although the mess of the first disc starts to balance out as the series continues, the problem never goes away. On the third disc, there is a summary episode that contains clips from episodes that haven't happened yet. Either Sony doesn't care enough about the series to take the time to put it in order (which shouldn't have been that hard), or else someone botched this up big time.
The only extra on the discs is a brief featurette about the development of the new series, and Sony's involvement from the very beginning. This is the final nail in the coffin, as it shows how much creative control the American representative wrested from the true creative geniuses that put this series together. The content was watered down far too much to begin with, and I am impressed that the producers were able to come up with a series as successful as this one under those conditions. That Sony would then take the finished product and disrespect it in this way is atrocious.
Great series, crappy DVD set. I wish I could have given this release high scores across the board, as it's a solid series that deserves plenty of attention. Astro Boy has been released in an inexpensive full-series box set that could have been a great deal for fans of the franchise. The show is a perfect blend of contemporary style with classic looking animation and good old fashioned values. It breaks my heart to think of what Geneon or ADV Films could have done with this series. If you have kids that loved the run of Astro Boy from last year, this set would be a fine investment. For the rest of us, the weaknesses of the discs turn what could have been a delightful and nostalgic journey into a long and frustrating experience. Shame on you, Sony. If you want to try to take the anime world by storm, at least do it right.
Sony is ordered to pay the producers of the series all of their profits as recompense for the disrespect they have shown the creators of Astro Boy.
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Scales of Justice
• Production Featurette
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