A new version of Astro Boy — Osamu Tezuka’s iconic boy robot superhero — was introduced to fans at Comic-Con International: San Diego at a Thursday morning panel spotlighting the upcoming CG-animated feature film.Moderated by animation historian Jerry Beck of CartoonBrew.com, the panel began with director David Bowers speaking to the challenges of recreating the 50-year-old character for a modern audience. “It’s a huge responsibility,” he said. “The comic strip is a classic. I sort of remembered it was created in the 1950s and, although it looks a little retro now, it was very cutting edge and modern for the time. I wanted people to feel the same way people in the 1950s would have felt when seeing him for the first time.” Playing the voice of Astro Boy is Freddie Highmore, whose credits include the lead in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. “We wanted to change Astro Boy and make him a bit more modern. That was my goal as well, altering him slightly and making Astro Boy my own,” he says. Finding the heart of the character was important to Highmore, who says the character is universal. “Astro Boy is a character we can all identify with. We all have something that makes us a bit different. We can all identify with the feeling of wanting to fit in to society and wanting to be accepted.” The story is a classic origin story, with Dr. Tenma creating a robotic replacement for his dead son, only to reject him — forcing Astro Boy to find his own way and decide to become a hero. The movie makes a major addition to the Astro Boy canon with the addition of a new female character, Cora, played by Kristen Bell of Veronica Mars and Heroes fame. Bell said this was her first animated project and only her second voice-acting job after doing narration for Gossip Girl. “There’s a lot more fun in doing a cartoon I think,” she said. “You come in and you get to see so many aspects you’re not really involved in. … it’s really cool to see all this work that goes into making it come to life.” Producer Maryann Gargan said the film was very luck in casting as all their first choices accepted. Key roles in the film will be voiced by Nicolas Cage, who brought a driven and tense quality to Astro Boy’s father Dr. Tenma. Donald Sutherland plays the villain of the film, President Stone, who’s after the core that powers Astro Boy to power his giant war machines. Also appearing in the film is Nathan Lane, Matt Lucas from Little Britain, Charlize Theron, Eugene Levy and Bill Nighy as both Dr. Elefun and a robot character. “We loved him so much we put him in twice,” Gargan also announced for the first time a special cameo voice: “Playing Zog, one of the robots in the movie, the coolest man in the world: Samuel L. Jackson.” A clip was then played in which Astro Boy is pursued through Metro City by President Stone’s military forces. It was well received by the audience, which laughed at the humor sprinkled throughout the sequence. Bowers says he saw a lot of similarities between Astro boy and Oliver Twist, which lead to other Dickensian elements such as Cora being like the Artful Dodger and Lane’s role of HamEgg as Fagan. Cora also is a foil for Astro Boy, representing the choice he must make between being a hero and being free, as well as the split in the film between the residents of Metro City and the surface dwellers. “She’s sassy and opinionated,” says Bell. “She’s got a very tough exterior and very soft interior, which you don’t really see until the end of the film.” Highmore says the relationship between Cora and Astro is mostly one of friendship. “At the moment he meet Cora, he doesn’t have anybody else to talk to or share things with,” he says. “Cora is the first person who he meets after he’s been abandoned by his father that he can open up to.” A second clip was shown featuring the battle for Metro City, with Astro using many of his iconic powers — including the machine guns in his butt — to fight Stone’s oversize minions. Bowers says one of the major differences from the original comic was giving Astro the memories of Dr. Tenma’s boy, Toby, as well as his appearance. He also says that while working on Astro Boy was very different from the films he worked on at Aardman — he directed Flushed Away — the humor is a constant and he hopes audiences enjoy that element of the film. In answering audience questions, Garger said that the film’s score by John Ottman was just recorded at Abbey Road in London. Bowers said there are Easter eggs for fans to look for. One recurring character is based on Tezuka, and voiced by his son. He also played up the work of sound effects supervisor Richard Anderson, who has worked on films like Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Arc, and Gremlins. “I tried to get him to put in a little Millennium Falcon here or Tie Fighter buzz there,” he says. Highmore says he definitely feels some pressure playing so iconic character. He says he visited Japan shortly after the project began and was impressed by the love for Astro Boy. “The excitement that I particularly saw in Japan, I wanted to bring to the world.” Highmore says he looked at some of the original manga and a bit of the anime, while Bell says that since her character is new that she relied mostly on Bowers for information. Bowers also says that fans who want to see the classic look of the character will get their wish in the film. “At the end, when he knows who he is, he’s 100 percent the classic Astro Boy.” Wrapping up the panel was the premiere of the trailer for the film — which included several still-unfinished sequences.
Astro Boy is set to open in theaters on Oct. 23.