Director David Bowers has every reason in the world to sound relieved.
After innumerable trials and tribulations his latest project, the CGI feature film version of “Astro Boy,” had its world premiere in Japan.
“It was very well received,” said Bowers, whose past directorial effort was “Flushed Away.” “It got praise and did some ridiculously powerful figures over there, which is always encouraging. When I was there, it was a very surreal scene. I mean I was there along with Astro Boy, and next thing I knew, the Honda Asimo robot walks on the stage. It was a night to remember, and I don’t think Honda had anything to do the movie.”
Created as a manga by Osamu Tezuka in the early 50s, “Astro Boy” earned its stripes as the first Japanese anime series ever back in 1963. The TV series was imported to the U.S. by Fred Ladd back in 1963, where it quickly kick started the first anime revolution domestically. Over the years, Ladd would revamp the tales of the Mighty Atom in the early 80s, and Tezuka’s son Makoto would do another one with Sony the beginning of this century.
Still, no animation feature in recent years had as many problems getting off the ground as this one. A production of a new company, the directors attached to the film at one time or another included the likes of Genndy Tartakovsky (“Dexter’s Laboratory,” “Samurai Jack” and the first “Clone Wars”) and Colin Brady (“Everyone’s Hero”).
If that wasn’t enough, the world financial recession played into the movie’s production. Imagi had to fish for new backers due to losses on the global stock market.
“It was touch and go for a while thanks to the world economic crisis adversely affecting the film being made,” Bowers admits, “but it was made. The people who came in to help Imagi finish it thought they saw something special there. So seeing it made was a huge relief. Still, it’s nerve wracking”
As it happens, Bowers managed to get the job done. He managed to pull a fairly high caliber voice cast for the project, among them Freddie Highmore as Astro, Nick Cage as Tenma, Bill Nighy as Dr. Elephun and Donald Sutherland as new villain President Stone.
He also threw some bones for old time fans.
“Inspector Detector doesn’t appear,” Bowers acknowledges, “but. Professor Elephun and Mr. Mustachio play quite big parts in the movie. Mustachio was actually Toby’s teacher at the beginning of the movie. He then makes some major appearances throughout the movie.”
Bowers, who grew up in the British city of Manchester, acknowledges he came to Tezuka’s work in a non-traditional manner, at least for an animator.
“When I was growing up in England in the 70s and 80s, the show wasn’t on television and the manga wasn’t available,” Bowers recalls. “I came aware of him more as a design icon. When I was young, the image of Astro Boy flying appeared to be everywhere, especially in imported products in my native Manchester.
“So the more I dug into Astro Boy, the more I liked it. I especially went back to the original manga, which to me is the purest source of him. I also drew from the 80s TV show. I found the 60s TV show to be fantastic but also a bit strange. It was also quite violent.”
The basic plot follows the classic storyline. When Dr. Tenma loses his son Toby in a car accident, the robotic genius loses his bearings. He devotes himself to the creation of a robotic replacement of his child, named Astro. Yet in a twist on the Pinocchio legend, Tenma discovers no robot can replace his lost boy, he rejects Astro, making the robot homeless.
This is where Bowers’ tale starts to go in its own direction as opposed to Tezuka’s original vision.
“It’s a little bit nerve wracking in one respect,” says Bowers. “When you’re dealing with a character that’s so much beloved, you think twice before changing anything. People want things that have gone on before.
“Fortunately, Tezuka Productions encouraged me to go a little bit broader with the character and expand on the universal story that already existed. They actually gave me a lot of freedom. Without that, I might have worried about taking the movie into directions that I did.
“Times have changed. You can’t exactly do the Astro Boy they grew up with and loved. With that in mind, all you can do is hope they will like this one even more. The original manga is still there. All the other versions of Astro Boy are available on DVD. I haven’t spawned something that doesn’t already exist.”
One thing that Bowers had to balance carefully was keeping the film true to its roots while making sure it would work on the U.S. front.
“I think people underestimate kids and their abilities,” he states. “I mean I also look back at the films that I loved, like “Snow White” and “Bambi,” which are horrific and traumatic. The origins of Astro Boy is quite tragic, too. The original story is a brilliant scientist loses his son in an auto accident. So he creates a robot to replace him, but the robot can’t replace him. So the scientist throws the robot out.
“At its core, that’s the real drama of the movie. It’s what keeps the movie moving forward. Done right, it becomes interesting, exciting and engaging. So we kept that in and it does move. It’s not overly violent or overly graphic, but I also didn’t shy away from the things that made the story great and resonate. In fact, I would say that made the story last for over 50 years.”
Luckily for Bowers, all his modifications were done with the blessings of Tezuka’s son, Makoto.
“It was great. He was very collaborative,” says Bowers. “He was mainly concerned with design. He liked the story I came up with, so there were never any problems there. He was very keen that Astro Boy looked like the character everyone knew and loved. We made him a little older in the movie. In the past, he was about the height and looks of about an 8-9 year old. He looks a little younger than that because of his trademark big eyes and his body proportions.”
Other key changes are the introduction of the character of President Stone and the young girl Cora (Kristen Bell).
“He’s actually the president,” says Bowers, who is correcting false info given out on the IMDB. “There are actually quite a lot of new characters. President Stone is the villain and he’s actually quite fantastic. He’s playing against type. He isn’t supposed to act like a villain in the movie. I wanted him to be likeable as well. Luckily, Sutherland has plenty of warmth. So he gives a very nuanced performance.
“President Stone’s deal is he’s up for re-election, but he’s not that popular a president. He feels if he can create a phony war he could sway the populace of the Earth. I won’t say it’s ripped right from the headlines, but it should sound a bit familiar. You could say it was inspired by what went on.
“Cora is kind of this artful dodger girl that Astro bumps into. They form a great friendship, but he never quite tells her that he’s a robot. So when she does find out, she reacts. Robots are treated like second-class citizens in Metro City.”
Actually, the treatment of robots is a common metaphor for anyone familiar with Tezuka’s work. It not only was seen in “Astro Boy,” but also in his other works, such as “Metropolis.” Bowers adds his own twist to the matter though.
“Another set of new characters are a bunch of robot revolutionaries,” he notes. “They are very keen on overthrowing human slavery. They will do anything they can, no matter how shocking. Unfortunately, they are harnessed by The First Law of Robots, which states they can not directly harm any human or let any human come to harm. So the most they can do is write angry letters to the local newspapers…but they are very militant about it.”
Otherwise, the film does stick to one important subtheme of the original manga, that of Astro learning about himself while the readers learn about his world.
“We treat the movie through self-discovery for Astro,” he said. “In the beginning of the movie we do a little set-up to show what Metro City is like. It’s a fake documentary called ‘Our Friends The Robots.’ The documentary talks about how great they are, how helpful, all that. Then it ends with telling us how they are ultimately dispensable. They are treated with no more respect than kitchen appliances.”
In the meantime, Bowers is already at work on his next film. He won’t disclose it’s title or nature. Still, he’s glad to see his current movie hitting the big screen this Friday.
“It feels great. I’m really proud of the movie. So far it’s gotten a really great reaction from fans and people who are new to Astro Boy. You always wonder if people are going to like your baby when you bring it out to the world.”
If the Japanese reaction is any indication, the kid is going to do just fine.