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Our reviews of Astro Boy (2009) (published March 8th, 2010), Astro Boy (1980): The Complete Series (published January 10th, 2006), and Astro Boy (2003): The Complete Series (published April 21st, 2005) are also available.
Astro Boy takes off!
For nearly 60 years, Astro Boy has been a significant part of Japanese culture (and to a lesser degree, American culture). Created by "god of manga" Osamu Tezuka, Astro Boy first appeared in 1951 and received his own television series in 1963. Over 100 episodes of the original series were aired on NBC in the United States during the 1960s, though it wasn't received quite as well in the states as it was in Japan. The character has continued to appear in the world of manga in recent years, and a 50-episode anime remake of Astro Boy launched in 2003. A new Astro Boy animated feature film starring the voices of Nicholas Cage and Kristen Bell will debut in theatres in October of 2009. In anticipation of that film's release, five compilation discs offering the new version of the show have been released. This first volume collects the first ten episodes.
Astro Boy is essentially a sort of robotic Pinocchio, a free-thinking creation of the kind Dr. Ochanomizu (Hisashi Katsuda). Astro quickly discovers that he has the ability to interact with other robotic creations, making him a unique link between humanity and technology. Despite Dr. Ochanomizu's best attempts to keep Astro safe from harm, somehow our young protagonist keeps getting thrown into challenging and terribly dangerous situations. To make things even worse, the villainous Dr. Tenma has diabolical plans of his own for the gifted Astro. What are Tenma's plans and what is Dr. Ochanomizu's mysterious secret regarded Astro's creation?
The following 10 episodes are all included on a single disc.
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This modern incarnation of Astro Boy is a largely successful endeavor, offering a program that is far more ambitious and compelling than most recent animated television shows geared at kids. In many ways, it's a more kid-friendly take on Spielberg's A.I. (which was also heavily rooted in the story of Pinocchio). There are some surprisingly thoughtful questions about the relationship between humanity and technology in the program, and an exploration of whether or not it is truly possible for something inorganic to actually have feelings. The episodes veer back and forth between self-contained adventures and installments that further the overall story (which is considerably more complex and ambitious than that of most other animation action shows). Props should also go to the animators for creating some surprisingly dynamic action sequences that just crackle with energy.
Alas, there are a number of significant problems with this colorful and ambitious series. It's not uncommon for US production companies to alter Japanese anime programs in some sort of negative way, but Astro Boy is one of the most unfortunate circumstances I've witnessed. The biggest problem is the image. The show was originally created as a 1.85:1 widescreen experience, but for some reason it had been cropped to 1.33:1 (full frame) for American viewers. This is unforgivable in any circumstance, but particularly in this case considering that the show clearly attempts to take advantage of the widescreen format. The feeling that you are missing an essential part of the picture is so significant that even viewers who don't generally notice such things may suspect that something is up.
The US version of the series was also subjected to some rather heavy editing. While it's difficult to figure out precisely what is missing, reports are that many scenes depicting Astro's childlike innocence were snipped. There certainly seems to be a level of disconnect in the voice work, where an obnoxious "child action hero" voice is fused with a character who seems much less intense. Still, it becomes easy to spot some scenes that have been dramatically edited, as there are very awkward cuts that feel very unnatural and off-pace from time to time.
At least the transfer is solid, conveying the vibrant imagery with clarity and detail. Though some of the more action-packed scenes do expose the limitations of the standard-def format, this is generally an exceptional release from a visual perspective. The audio is fine, though I really do despise the grating techno score by William Kevin Anderson. There are no extras included on the disc.
The show may be worth checking out, but the butchering of it is nothing short of exasperating. If you're going to watch the series, you might as well pick up the complete series box set rather than this disc, since many plot threads are still hanging by the time the disc comes to a close.
The show is not guilty, but the US presentation certainly is.
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