Early in Astro Boy, a squad of combat drones goes into battle against an experimental war robot. One drone turns to his friend and mutters, "I really hate this job." That moment helps crystalize what makes Astro Boy so great.
This review definitely contains spoilers, although it won't give away anything major, that you couldn't figure out from watching the trailers and looking at stills.
So you probably already know what Astro Boy is about: there's a scientist, Dr. Tenma, and his brilliant little boy, Toby, gets killed. So Dr. Tenma makes a robot replica of Toby, complete with Toby's memories, and gives him the most cutting-edge armaments and power source, so he can never be hurt again. But the robot version can't replace Toby, so Dr. Tenma ultimately rejects him — and he goes off to become Astro Boy.
I've grown to have a healthy appreciation for the manga of Osamu Tezuka — his medical thriller Ode To Kirihito is riveting and totally not what I expected — but writer/director David Bowers added to Tezuka's world-building in ways that totally enhanced the story for me. And a huge part of that was Bowers' vision of a world of enslaved robots, which is both funny and occasionally disturbing.
Bowers, an Aardman Animation veteran who worked on Chicken Run and Wallace And Gromit, lets his Aardman roots show most of all when he's dealing with some of the robots in the movie. From Dr. Tenma's robot servant to a flying a window-cleaning squirt bottle and squeegee, to a robot trash-can dog, the robots are always cute and silly, yet also can't help reminding you of their non-person status in the gleaming futuristic Metro City. A clever, retro-looking instructional film at the start of the movie serves to underscore this point, showing robots being used and then tossed aside, onto the giant scrap heap that Metro City floats over.
But don't worry — at no point does Astro Boy give you a dry lecture about robot rights, or the unfairness of enslaving other sentient beings. Instead, it contains tons of sly jokes and clever moments that make you sympathize and identify with the robots — even as we're rooting for Astro Boy's quest to be recognized as a human.
And that's where Astro Boy gets really interesting. Because, of course, the original story is all about Astro wanting to be a "real boy," like Pinocchio. By juxtaposing that quest with the constant reminders that all the other robots are just as aware as Astro Boy himself, the movie makes the standard "quest for humanity" a lot more complex.
Because Astro Boy is the only robot who actually appears human and is programmed with a real human's memories, he's the only bot with the option of blending in with human society. He's also almost the only bot who's not programmed with Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, which force the other robots to be servile even when they don't want to be. The more we sympathize with the other robots, who don't have the same options Astro has, the less clear-cut Astro's quest for humanity begins to appear.
Some of the most fascinating scenes in Astro Boy deal with this question of "passing" as human — early on, after Astro Boy is created, he thinks he's a "real" boy — but the other robots can see the truth at a glance. Dr. Tenma's servant bot is instructed to treat the robot boy as if he were human, and this nearly causes a robo-conniption fit. "I'm so freaking out right now!" the robot says a few times. And then later, Astro Boy knows he's a robot, but he's trying to live among humans as one of them — except that he keeps having to worry that the other robots will "out" him.
It's not much of a spoiler to say that Astro Boy gets to be accepted as a real boy by the end of the movie — but that only leaves you with more questions, particularly about how this will affect all the other robots. The movie only offers the barest hints that Astro Boy's special status could end up benefiting all his robot brothers and sisters.
There are two things I love in children's movies: world-building and subversiveness. And Astro Boy has enough of both of them to build a thousand giant robots out of.
We already talked a lot about the movie's world-building in this exclusive interview with Bowers and designers Jake Rowell and Luis Grane: the movie takes place in a floating city, which includes an entire mountain levitated above the ground. And we get little glimpses of the history of the development of the robots in this society, especially when we meet a 100-year-old robot named Zog (voiced, rather laconically, by Samuel L. Jackson.)