INTERVIEW WITH NICOLAS CAGE AND FREDDIE HIGHMORE
It’s been 57 years since Astro Boy first took flight in Japan, but today the rocket-powered robot boy attempts flying to new heights with a feature film that may surprise even loyal fans with its bittersweet tale.
“Astro Boy” features Freddie Highmore in the role of the mechanized wonder boy while Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell, Bill Nighy and Samuel L. Jackson lead the deep supporting cast. The movie is heavy on heroic action and futuristic spectacle, but there are also themes of identity and loss that may remind adult viewers of Steven Spielberg’s “A.I: Artificial Intelligence.”
For Cage, it was those themes that set the movie apart from the standard lighter-than-air animated entertainments of today. The 45-year-old father said he was pulled in by the premise of a synthetic boy who believes he is a “real” human and then finds himself cast out by his creator.
“The sadness of the story,” Cage said, “is exactly what drew me to ‘Astro Boy.’ I can’t help but feel for him especially when his father rejects him.”
Cage’s character, Dr. Tenma, is a famed scientist in the floating metropolis of Astro City, where he spends less time than he should with his son, Toby, and too much time with the belligerent military leader Gen. Stone (Donald Sutherland). Stone’s recklessness causes the lab test of a new weapon to go awry and Tenma’s son is killed in the chaos. Driven to obsession by grief and guilt, Tenma constructs a robot that resembles his lost child and invests it with the boy’s memories. That robot becomes the superpowered Astro, but Tenma sees only a cruel reminder of his dead son.
“Astro Boy” presented a number of challenges for producer Maryann Garger, director David Bowers and their team. For one thing, the film was made in 20 months, a mad-dash pace compared with most contemporary animated features. Garger said that was in part due to the imperatives of deals struck with licensing partners, which include McDonald’s, L.A. Looks and American Greetings.
But Bowers, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Timothy Harris, said there was a freedom in the rigid schedule. “Some of these films take five years and it’s just too long,” said the British filmmaker, whose directorial debut was “Flushed Away” in 2006. “I was intrigued by making a movie so quickly because I knew I would have to go with first instincts.”
Another challenge was finding a film that would satisfy loyal, longtime fans of the character but also deliver a crowd pleaser to the wide Western audience that had little knowledge of the hero. Garger, who was also the producer of “Flushed Away” and “First Flight,” said the key thing was to hold on to the sadness of the origin story and then build a bright action film around it.
“It’s part of the lore, and what makes that lore so powerful is that it is about this tragic event that happens and it’s nothing that we could shy away from, even though there were concerns” from some voices involved in the production, Garger said. “But it’s the core of what this property is. It’s a very emotional story. I think that’s why it’s so classic and it’s lasted over 50 years.”
What about pleasing Japanese fans and the wide Western audience? Cage, a longtime fan of “Astro Boy,” dismissed the notion that anything would be lost in the translation during Astro’s flight into feature film.
“I try not to think of things in terms of how one culture will receive a movie versus another. The fact that ‘Astro Boy’ appealed to me as a boy in America was proof that the story and character transcend cultural stereotypes.”
Bowers said his approach was to please himself first: “I’m quite selfish, so I just made the movie for myself. At the same time I love Astro Boy, I love the property, so I wasn’t about to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Astro Boy began as Tetsuwan Atomu (Iron-Armed Atom) and was created by the late, great Osamu Tezuka. It first appeared in 1951. The manga jumped to the television screen in the 1960s for a black-and-white animated series, which was followed through the decades by popular color cartoons, a mountain of manga, toys, etc.
“There’s a lot of love and respect for the original property — especially the manga as opposed to the television shows — but this film is not entirely faithful,” Bowers said. “One of the wrinkles I added is that when Astro is created, Tenma gives him Toby’s memories, so when he awakes for the first time Astro believes he’s a real boy. That’s different from the manga, where he always knows he’s a robot. … I wanted to give Astro some serious identity problems.”
Highmore has plenty of experience dealing with roles steeped in bookshelf history and fan expectation. He starred as Charlie in Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and took on roles in “The Spiderwick Chronicles” and “The Golden Compass.“
Highmore was the first one cast on “Astro Boy” and, recording his parts in the studio first and alone, he was a key shaper of the film’s tone, Bowers said. For Highmore, the project was a satisfying mix of plot elements that recalled “Pinocchio” and the vivid spectacle of a highflying sci-fi romp.
“There’s different layers to the movie, there’s a lot of action and the fact that he is a superhero and the kids will love all that,” said the 17-year-old British actor. “But there’s also some bittersweet things, like Astro’s desire to fit in, his search for identity and his relationship with his father. There’s all the history of the character too, but for us it was important for this film to be its own piece. I think fans who know ‘Astro Boy’ will enjoy and so will people coming to it all for the first time.”
The cast also includes Nathan Lane, Charlize Theron, Eugene Levy and Matt Lucas (who will be playing both Tweedledee and Tweedledum in the upcoming “Alice in Wonderland“).
With Jackson, Lane, Cage and Sutherland, Bowers acknowledged that there are big personalities in the movie, but he said they all deliver performances that are controlled.
“It was a challenge coming in but in the end it worked wonderfully,” Bowers said. “I told each of them that the movie that I hoped I was making would have an emotional truth to it and that the performances would be very natural, I didn’t want it to be cartoony or broad. But there’s a lot of humor in the film. Once we got the emotional side of the story working, then we just went and put as much action, fun and spectacle in the movie as we could fit. The action makes the movie fun and, hopefully, the story makes it involving.”
— Geoff Boucher
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Credit: “Astro Boy” film images, Imagi Studios
UPDATE: I had a line in this story that said this was Imagi Studio’s first film. It is a key release for them and their biggest project to date, but certainly not their first feature.