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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 24.24%
Just Average: 0%
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Sucks: 24.24%

4 reviews, 9 user ratings

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by Jay Seaver

"Unfiltered excitement and imagination. And action, amazing action."
5 stars

I've seen Katsuhiro Otomo's new movie, Steamboy, referred to as "steampunk" a few times already. It's a term people have heard to describe alternate history stories set in the latter half of the nineteenth century, only positing a more advanced technology - though one generally based upon available tech and theory. It's a twist on "cyberpunk", itself a term that is already somewhat quaint. But, anyway, there's nothing very punk-ish about Steamboy. It's an exciting adventure story, filled with fantastical machines and daring escapes for its young hero. Call it "steampop", and call it a ton of fun.

After a prologue showing a father-and-son team of engineers working to create a mysterious new steam-powered device (requiring mineral water that will take fifty years to replenish) for a mysterious international consortium in 1866 Russian America (Alaska), we jump to Machester, England, where 12-year-old Ray Steam helps with the engines in a mechanized factory, crawling inside to fix the parts the burly chief engineer can't reach. When he arrives home, he finds a package from his grandfather, Dr. Lloyd Steam (a picture in the kitchen shows that he is the next generation of the engineers in America), along with a note not to allow it to fall into the O'Hara Foundation - who promptly arrive to take it. After an exhilarating chase scene, he fails, and is taken to London where he finds that the man his grandfather said must not get his hands on the "steam ball" is... Ray's father, Dr. Edward Steam?

Oh, yeah, this is going to be an uncomfortable Christmas dinner. The heart of the film is that Ray must choose between the values espoused by his grandfather, who insists science must be done slowly and carefully and only be used for the betterment of humanity, and his father, who is willing to work with arms merchants like the O'Hara Foundation if that's what it takes to bring his dreams to life. This is, of course, a highly simplistic way to frame the debate over how much scientific researchers should restrain their subjects as opposed tot their methods, but it's effective because it is, at its heart, a kid having to take sides between his father and grandfather, both of whom he adores. Give Otomo and his co-writer Sadayuki Murai credit, though, for also forcing Ray to realize that conflicts between idealists will inevitably become conflicts between groups seeking out their self-interest.

Though the Steam family is at the center of the story, there are a number of other fun characters thrown in, including a couple whose names are meant to be winks to the audience, even if they are off by a decade or so. "Robert Stephenson" is the one-time rival to Eddie Steam who now works for the British government, and who tries to prevent the O'Hara foundation from obtaining the steam ball. On the other side is the teenage heir to the O'Hara fortune, a Miss Scarlett who is every bit as nasty a spoiled brat as her namesake; she even punches her poor little dog.

Is it more than a bit fanciful to have two of the most crucial characters in this story be children? Oh, absolutely, but it works. They're at the right age to have formed distinct personalities and behavior patterns, but still able to surprise. Ray is not always a good kid - sure, he's an instinctive engineering genius, but he gets into fights, coming close to severely injuring a local bully. And as bratty and selfish as Scarlett is, she's still capable of reacting with childlike awe while sneaking around the London Science Exhibition.

Otomo spent the better part of a decade making Steamboy, what at twenty million dollars is the most expensive animated movie ever made in Japan, and the audience gets the full benefit of the time and money spent on it. Not just in terms of the long (136 minute) running time, although animation by its nature has a much more direct relationship between production time and screen time, but in almost every frame of that running time. The visuals are quite frankly astonishing: industrial Manchester is smoky and dreary, while London is bright and filled with architectural detail. And then there's the inside of the O'Hara Pavilion, aka "Steam Tower", which is a riot of mechanical beauty. The design and animation work is intricate - gears turn each other, it takes a lot of lever manipulation to make a mechanical behemoth walk, and communication throughout the Tower is handled via voice tubes.

Aside - it saddens me how little credit animated films get for design, both in reviews and at award time. Just because nobody uses a hammer and nails to physically build something doesn't mean that any less effort goes into creating the "sets" and "props" used. I'll wager that if you compare Steamboy's design sense to whatever wins at the Oscars next year, Steamboy will look pretty good - and it won't be nominated because Shinji Kimura isn't in the same union.

What's even more incredible is how consistent the animation style is. The trend of the past decade has been to use CGI for the machine elements in traditionally-animated movies like this, but if the animators use digital animation for more than some swooping camera movements and reflective glass, it's tough to tell - the machines have the same palette and feel as everything else.

Otomo's skills as a screenwriter have also improved, although the assist from Murai (who also wrote the screenplay for the excellent Perfect Blue) probably didn't hurt. To be fair, he wasn't credited with the screenplay to Akira, though it was based on his original manga (a gigantic work that yielded a two-hour movie bursting at the seams). As much as his screenplay for Metropolis was an improvement on the original Tezuka manga, it still felt a bit overstuffed. This film, though, seems effortless and playful, still packed full of neat stuff, but not so much to smother the audience. If anything, it's a little airy at times; it will be interesting to see how the twenty-minute-shorter English version tightens things up.

And the action! Good lord, the action! I'd say there's a good chance it's the best you'll see this year, but there is a Star Wars movie due in a couple of months. Though the physics of this movie are clearly bunk, it's forgivable because the scale is gigantic, the participants are fancifully drawn to be seem period-authentic and high-tech, and the action choreography is as good as any live-action movie. Steve Jablonsky's music does a great job of pumping up the excitement.

Damn, I wish they made movie like this in the United States. Something like Sky Captain comes close, but there's a freedom to traditional animation that neither live-action nor CGI can yet match. Like the best manga/comics, it's like there's no filtering between Otomo's fertile imagination and what we see on screen.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=10627&reviewer=371
originally posted: 03/25/05 14:35:39
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Toronto Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Leeds Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Leeds Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Palm Springs Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Palm Springs Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival For more in the 2006 Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/31/08 Bobby Excellent! Visually stunning, it is a wonderful inspiration to steampunk enthusiasts. 5 stars
3/18/07 Czechpointcharlie Steampunk anime; beautifully rendered, and lots of fun. 4 stars
12/10/06 Jim Terrific animation and visuals, interesting Steampunk plot 5 stars
5/17/06 Pokejedservo A truly fine piece of animated cinema indeed. 5 stars
1/25/06 Sean Hartlieb Spectacular and mind - blowing. A worthy anime to Akira. 5 stars
11/16/05 billy bob its was a piece of sh*T 1 stars
11/16/05 boby willis I think it was pretty boring and knot enough action 1 stars
3/22/05 Brian ..and Ring 2 gets a wide release when this slips under the radar? 5 stars
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  18-Mar-2005 (PG-13)
  DVD: 26-Jul-2005



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