What’s the difference between a mad scientist and a genius inventor? This question would, under other circumstances, be at the heart of Katsuhiro Otomo’s new feature-length anime, “Steamboy.” Unfortunately, there are a few major things about the film that completely detract from such philosophical ponderings.
For starters, the family Steam (Lloyd, Edward and Ray) are all as nutty as fruitcakes. Okay, so Ray’s a mostly-harmless kind of nutty, but still, you can tell that the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree. When you’ve got Dad and Granddad gesticulating wildly and spouting off about the proper course of scientific progress, well, all that bombast sort of gets in the way of serious thinking. The only other characters who get serious screen time are either shifty or outright annoying (that would be “Miss Scarlett,” the shrill, stupid and annoying supposed-love-interest. Gah.)
Then you have the visuals. Oh, wow, are they pretty! “Steamboy” follows closely on the heels of the also-gorgeous “Metropolis” as a highly detailed, wonderfully lit, lovingly animated piece of art. There are even a few brief tone-poem-style moments reminiscent of that earlier work, but for the most part this film’s about action. Tanks, trains, dirigibles, armor, guns, flying machines, giant articulated appendages and steam valves of all sizes fill the screen. Unfortunately, much of the action seems to be for the sake of giving the audience action sequences to “ooh” and “aah” over. That’s okay, though, ‘cause when you get right down to it, there’s no plot for the action to get in the way of.
There’s also what could be considered a rather nitpicky complaint, though I consider it a highly relevant one considering the tone and direction of the film’s dialog. You see, there’s a lot of blathering about “science” and what it’s supposed to mean for mankind. There’s only one problem: They’re confusing science and technology. What you see on the screen is lots and lots of technology. It’s engineering and applied physics, sure, but is it actually science? Not so much, really.
Maybe I’ve just read too much James Burke. Who knows?
Oh, you want to know about the plot? Let’s see… there’s this bauble. I mean, steamball. Okay, it turns out there are three of them, but you only ever see the one. Ray’s father and grandfather are competing for possession of it, the reasons for which are pontificated upon at length in between chase and mechanical-fight sequences of considerable energy and detail. Things explode, other things fly around, and… no, that’s pretty much it. Two hours of machinery and bombast.
It’s awfully pretty to look at. Some of the sequences will take your breath away if you have any enjoyment of animation whatsoever. But it’s all just so much empty visualization, because you can’t really care about the characters and there’s nothing resembling a compelling plot. Who will end up with the steamball? Who cares? Everyone we meet is nutty, greedy or both. It’s sort of hard to root for anybody, which is odd as well as a damned shame, considering this movie’s obvious attempts to be a good old-fashioned rollicking actioner.
Oh, and there are some interesting nods to other works, both Otomo’s own and that of others. “Akira” comes to mind, as well as the bookending sequences of “Robot Carnival.” You’ll also get a strong “Rocketeer” vibe from Ray’s flight sequences (the costume alone gives it away, really).
I should mention the dub job. It’s… well, it could’ve been worse. Patrick Stewart does his usual sterling work, but he’s horribly miscast as the cranky, crazy grandfather. Alfred Molina does a spot-on job as Ray’s father, even managing to salvage some dignity from the bombastic lines he has to spout on occasion. I don’t know who Kari Wahlgren’s supposed to be, but I guess all they needed was someone to be shrill, annoying and to scream appropriately during her damsel-in-distress moments. Anna Paquin? Well… I don’t understand the thinking behind that choice. I like her well enough, but I couldn’t shake the sense that it’s a much harder sell having an actress voice a male part for English roles than it is in Japanese (where it’s not only normal but just about the norm). She didn’t do a bad job, really, though she also had almost nothing interesting to do with the role. Ray’s just a kid who goes along with the flow of things, really. And that’s probably the last, most fatal flaw in the movie: The hero isn’t really all that heroic, when you get right down to it.
Steamboy. See it for the pretty pictures. Do it with the sound off, if you wind up with it on DVD. It’ll be better that way, believe me.