Astro Boy (PG) ★★★½

Review Date: January 7th, 2011

Imagine, if you will, the story of Pinocchio in reverse: Instead of a puppet turning into a human boy, the opposite occurs. Now, in place of the puppet substitute a humanoid robot with flight capabilities and advanced weaponry, and you get Summit Entertainment's animated sci-fi flick, Astro Boy.

If the concept sounds a tad bizarre, it might help to know that Astro Boy's roots stretch back to the world of Japanese manga comics, where the idea of a boy dying and being reborn as a super-powered robot isn't considered remotely unusual. Thankfully, helping to make Astro Boy's robot Lazarus more palatable to American audiences is Freddie Highmore, who lends his considerable voice talents to both the titular robot and his human forebear, Toby.

Little Toby absolutely worships his father, Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage), a gifted scientist famous for his innovations in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence.(Astro Boy is set in the distant, somewhat dystopian future, by the way.) Tenma serves as the lead science advisor for Metro City, a high-tech utopia that floats high above Earth, safely removed from the environmental wreckage on the surface below . He's a busy man — so busy, in fact, that he doesn't notice when his son wanders into a weapons testing area and perishes during one of his experiments.

Devastated, Tenma does what any heartbroken father would do after the tragic death of his son: He extracts the memories from the boy's DNA and uploads them into the CPU of a technologically advanced super-robot, one who bears an uncanny resemblance to the deceased. Tenma soon finds, however, that his son's robot doppelganger does nothing to alleviate his suffering. Consumed by regret, he orders the robot boy dismantled.

But Toby 2.0 manages to avoid destruction with the help of another scientist, Dr. Elefun (Bill Nighy), who takes pity on the earnest, all-too-human creation, and he escapes to Earth's surface. Amid the forgotten wasteland, he befriends an Oliver-esque group of orphans, is re-named Astro Boy, and bests a handful of other robots in a giant battle royale.

No sooner does Astro Boy triumph against the mechanized gladiators than he is summoned back to Metro City, where its megalomaniacal president, General Stone (Donald Sutherland), has gone completely apes**t, fusing with a powerful war machine (ironically dubbed "The Peacemaker") and carving a destructive path through the metropolis. Soon the only thing that stands in the way of Metro City's certain annihilation is the heroic Astro Boy, whose compassion for his human friends, we discover, is anything but artificial.

With its simple message, charming story and gorgeous, retro-futuristic animation, Astro Boy packs more than enough firepower to overcome the awkwardness of its premise, the lulls in its storyline and the overall creepiness of Nicolas Cage (both his voice and his character). Dr. Tenma is an odd cat, and Cage does little to endear him to the audience, to the point that when father and robot son reconcile at the end, their reunion feels hollow — and more than a little weird.

Initially, Astro Boy takes a little too long trying to establish the father-son and father-robot dynamics, when it should be fast-forwarding to the action. When the action does get going, however, the movie is consistently engrossing. rated this film 3 1/2 stars.