The Little Robot That Could

Die-hard fans are hoping that Astro Boy, Imagi’s new CG-animated adaptation of Tezuka’s beloved manga, will be as electrifying as the original property and TV series.

It’s been almost 57 years since Japanese manga visionary Osamu Tezuka introduced the world to a fantastic little robot boy named Mighty Atom. His character took a life of its own after it became a successful animated series in the early ’60s and earned popularity all over the world. This year, the character, known as Astro Boy in Western territories, makes a huge comeback in a CG-animated feature, produced by Imagi Studios, which also produced the impressive animation for the 2007 hit movie TMNT.

The new adaptaion is directed by Aardman veteran David Bowers and produced by Maryann Garger’who also collaborated on the 2006 feature Flushed Away. Staying close to the original premise of the property, the Astro Boy follows the adventures of a small robot with incredible powers from Metro City who discovers the joys of being human while embarking on a global journey to discover his true potential.

‘I’ve always loved Astro Boy, so when I heard that the project was being done and was in development, I sort of tried to find out as much as I could about it,’ notes the British-born Bowers. ‘Luckily, I’d worked with Maryann before. It just seemed like the right movie for me at the right time.’

Bowers calls the story being told in the film a ‘classic superhero origin story’ that explains who Astro Boy is and where he came from. While Astro Boy is a huge phenomenon in Japan and all around the world, there are countries where the story of a scientist who creates a super-powered robot boy in the image of his dead son is less well known. Bowers says he wanted the film to have a really strong emotional core. ‘I really went back to the father-son relationship between Astro and his father,’ he says.

The film also features a cast of well-known Hollywood actors, including Freddie Highmore of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as Astro Boy; Nicolas Cage as his father/inventor, Dr. Tenma; and Kristen Bell as Cora, a new character introduced in this film; as well as Nathan Lane, Eugene Levy and Bill Nighy.

With the film being done in a 3D, CG-animated style, the world of Astro Boy needed a makeover from the iconic, 2D images of Tezuka. Character designer Luis Grane said translating the 2D style into 3D was the toughest challenge of working on the picture. Grane looked at a wide range of art for inspirations, including everything from pre-Colombian sculptures to the art of Tezuka himself.

For the heroic Astro Boy, there were a few changes to his classic look. ‘They wanted to make him a little bit older than the original one, they wanted to appeal to a broader audience,’ say Grane. A few early attempts went too far and made the character look like an adult, but eventually the right look was found.

They also had to consider what the character would wear and what powers he’d retain. ‘There were concerns about seeing a boy flying in underwear through the city,’ says Grane. ‘In the original manga, he has some clothes, but they’re a little old fashioned. So we came up with something different and tried different costumes.’

Most of his powers are what fans will consider the core, classic powers’even if they seem a little odd to today’s viewers, such as the machine guns that come out of the robotic boy’s behind.

‘For me it’s completely normal,’ says Grane. ‘I grew up with it! Of course he has butt guns!’

A few of the characters that worked in 2D had features that were hard to translate, such as Professor Elefun’s big nose. New characters, such as Cora, had to be designed to look like they belonged in the same world as Astro Boy.

There were a few instances where the actors influenced the look of the character. Animation director Jakob Jensen says they did a test of Freddie Highmore’s voice’taking a short bit of audio from one of his other movies and putting it in the mouth of Astro Boy’as a way to show the actor what they had planned and get him to sign on. They also altered the appearance of Ham Egg’a Fagin-like character’to resemble Nathan Lane, who provides the voice.

When asked to compare working in 2D with CG animation, Bowers says each method presents a different set of technical issues. ‘There are things that are easier to do in 2D and things that are easier to do in 3D,’ he notes. ‘I find that 3D’s actually a little more difficult. Just technically, there’s so much more actual work involved for the artists. As a director, it doesn’t really make that much of a difference at all. I’m still looking for a great story. I’m still looking to make the characters rich. I’m still working with actors and working with tremendously talented artists in pretty much the same way. Luckily, they shield me from all the technical gobblety gook ‘ the stuff that would just baffle me, technically. I’m free to work on the story and the action and make sure it’s a good movie. So for me, it’s not much of a transition at all.’

Bowers said during a post-panel interview at Comic-Con that he’s not worried that the film will lose any of the original charm or impact of the Japanese original in the translation. ‘I was worried about that, but to make sure we didn’t, I’ve been working very closely with Makoto Tezuka, who’s Tezuka’s son, and he really looks after his father’s estate,’ says Bowers, ‘He’s a filmmaker himself and a really creative guy’and he’s had quite a few notes to give along the way in terms of design, in terms of the cultural differences. But he’s very happy with the movie. I’m not worried.’

Astro Boy is the kind of iconic character that can stand up to different interpretations, much like another favorite of Bowers’, Batman. ‘When I was a kid growing up I was watching the Adam West Batman on TV, and I loved it, and I loved The Dark Knight last year and they’re both still Batman,’ he says. ‘Classic characters can stand a little reinterpretation, and we haven’t done that much reinterpretation in this movie.’

Summit Entertainment will release Imagi Studio’s Astro Boy in theaters nationwide on October 23.