Creator: Katsuhiro Otomo, Sadayuki Murai
Genre: Adventure, Science Fiction
Length: Movie (2:06)
+ Beautiful and detailed animation, the film is a feast for the eyes
+ The English actors add to rather than distract from the film
The story is riddled with clichés and retreads of familiar material
Even the score is familiar to fans of action and adventure movies - generic hero stuff
Plays too much like a 19th century Akira
Katsuhiro Otomo is a master of the anime form. While his first feature, Akira, is a groundbreaking masterpiece, Steamboy is a disappointment. Fans of action and adventure films will find it overly familiar but the animation is beautiful and detailed. The intricate and amazing animation doesn't overcome the weak and uninspired story. At the same time the dialogue is often witty and the English version features top actors. The occasional historical inaccuracies and anachronisms will be noticed by hardcore history buffs but in a film that features soldiers in steam driven powered armor and a giant walking castle, historical accuracy is hardly relevant.
3.5 out of 5
Steamboy Anime Movie Review
Written by: Frank B. Chavez III on 10/12/2006
Many American kids got their first taste of anime when television shows such as Astroboy, Tranzor Z, G Force, Speed Racer, Voltron, and Robotech began to filter into mainstream American media in the seventies and eighties.
The idea that anime could be about something other than giant robots and cute girls entered the conscious of many when Katsuhiro Otomo's groundbreaking film Akira, made its American debut. For better or worse, Akira set the standard by which all other science fiction anime is judged. And now, some sixteen years later Katsuhiro Otomo returns to directing feature length films with his adventure - Steamboy.
A steam punk adventure set in the UK in the 1860s, Steamboy tells the story of young inventor Ray Steam as he battles the nefarious O'Hara Foundation as they attempt to control his grandfather's invention, the Steam Ball. A secret of great power lies behind the Steam Ball and the O'Hara foundation will stop at nothing to achieve this power for their own illicit ends. Steamboy takes place in an alternate 19th century that exists solely in the minds of anime and manga artists. Like other stories in the steam punk genre, the world of Steamboy is enhanced by the use of marvelous, steam powered technology. And like its futuristic cousin, cyber punk, whether technology is a benefit or a hazard depends entirely on the will of the user.
Steamboy is beautiful to look at - perhaps the most beautiful animated film I have ever seen but we've seen it all before. The screenplay layers on cliché after cliché and layers them on thick. From the opening scenes of scientists developing a source of ultimate steam power, the plot is familiar territory not only from other anime but other films and literary sources. The plot is derivative of countless science fiction and adventure films as well as the literary works of Jules Verne and HG Wells. In a beautifully animated sequence, Dr. Lloyd Steam and his son Dr. Eddie are about to achieve their goal of a small but powerful source for steam power - the so-called Steam Ball -- when their lab somewhere in the Alaskan wilderness is destroyed in a dazzling display of animated pyrotechnics. From this moment the audience is aware that the Steam Ball will fall into the wrong hands, one of these men will return as a deranged but noble hero and the other will be seen again as a wounded, tragic villain.
The scene transitions to Manchester, England circa 1866 as we meet our titular hero, Ray Steam the son of Dr. Eddie Steam and grandson of Dr. Lloyd Steam. Manchester is an industrial city at the height of the Industrial Revolution and Ray earns a living as a mechanic in one of the many coal powered, steam driven factories so prevalent throughout the urban centers of the western world in that period. In a scene that we've seen time and time again in adventure films of this sort, Ray saves the lives of everyone in the factory when he is able to repair a broken valve at the last possible moment. Ray is a likable hero but we've seen him before. He is the clever, intuitive genius seen in such varied films as Star Wars Episode I: the Phantom Menace (the young Anakin Skywalker) and Stargate (Dr. Daniel Jackson). Ray has inherited his father and grandfather's talent for working with steam powered machinery - away from work he putters around with various inventions of his own including a kind of steam powered wheel which will come in handy as he is chased by the villain's thugs.
As Ray walks home from work he encounters some bullies who mock his father and grandfather as well as his own work as an inventor. In a scene not too dissimilar to Akira, Ray angrily fights the boys, beating one in the head with a pipe. While Tetsuo's violence in Akira escalates with tragic results, Ray's violence is depicted heroically with often comic results. When Ray's mother finds out about his violent outburst he makes him sit in the corner with a dunce cap and sends him to bed without supper.
Show More When Ray returns home from work, he finds a mysterious package waiting for him as the Mcguffin (Alfred Hitchcock defined the Mcguffin as that thing that all the characters in the movie are so keen on having but the audience could care less about) of the film is introduced - Ray opens the box to discover the Steam Ball hidden inside. Agents of the O'Hara Foundation almost immediately arrive to take it away. Warned by his grandfather of the O'Hara Foundation's evil intent, Ray attempts to keep the Ball away from them and in an increasingly elaborate chase scene, which owes much to chases in such classics as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and involving a train, a steam powered automobile, Ray's steam powered wheel and a Zeppelin, Ray is eventually subdued and taken to London.
In London, Ray is introduced to the love interest of the piece, the heiress of the O'Hara fortune, the beautiful if arrogant Miss Scarlet. This is one of many scenes that allude to literature or other films. In a scene eerily reminiscent of Darth Vader's appearance in Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back, Ray is re-united with his father. Horribly wounded in the opening lab explosion, part of Dr. Eddie's face is covered by a metal plate and his arm has been replaced with a mechanical prosthetic. Dr. Eddie invites Ray to join him in completing the Steam Castle which he has been building with O'Hara foundation funding as part of an exhibit at the Great London Expedition. Ray readily accepts in spite warnings from his Grandfather and inventor Robert Stephenson that the O'Hara foundation is evil.
Meanwhile, Robert Stephenson (named for an actual period inventor) has warned an admiral of the British Royal Navy that the O'Hara Foundation is in fact planning to use the London Exhibition as a marketplace for advanced weapons. Dr. Lloyd argues in the film that using science for weapons and subjugating science to the whims of capitalism is a betrayal of the spirit of science saying, "An invention with no philosophy behind it is a curse." Stephenson's motives are not so pure however, rather than believing that science shouldn't be used for weapons he believes that advanced weapons belong only in the hands of the British. As the plot unfolds battles ensue and a bizarre, massive machine is revealed.
Show More All of this unfolds in a fashion familiar to fans of both adventure films and Otomo's early work, most notably Akira. Not only does Ray resemble Akira's Tetsuo he has similar facial expressions and a similar temperament. His father, who is reminiscent of Jules Verne characters such as Captain Nemo, closely resembles the Colonel from the same film and his grandfather could pass for a cross between Ben Gunn from Treasure Island and one of the scientists in Akira. Even the Jules Verne-esque debates between Dr. Eddie and Dr. Lloyd about the place of science in society sound familiar. The only difference is the type of science being discussed. Akira was about mental science, psychic powers, and human evolution while Steamboy is about machinery and mechanical power. The transformation of the O'Hara Foundation's London Exhibition Pavilion into the Steam Castle nearly recreates shot for shot the emergence of the Akira chamber near the end of Akira. Even the settings are similar - the moment of Akira's emergence takes place in an Olympic Stadium while Steamboy sets its action at the London Exhibition.
What we have left to look forward to are the action set pieces which are spectacular if familiar and the beautiful animation. From the opening frames of workers reflected in drops of water the animation in this film is filled with beautiful details. Computer generated effects and hand drawn animation are seamlessly integrated to form shots of the London and Manchester skyline where light and shadow dance with clouds in scenes reminiscent of rococo era paintings. The details of city life, architecture and transportation are so wonderfully realized that we can almost believe we are visiting 19th century England. The character designs continue the trends of many anime artists to move away from cartoon-y manga style art towards more realistic renderings. Like Takahata's characters in Grave of the Fireflies, characters in Steamboy are so detailed that they could almost walk out of the screen and into the real world. Robert Stephenson especially resembles a real world human being - in fact his face nearly matches the statue of Robert Stephenson displayed at Euston Station, London. Like Grave of the Fireflies, Steamboy makes use of a limited palette to achieve a period feel. Heavy on browns the film often looks like a sepia toned photo or silent movie.
Steamboy is an anime which actually benefits from an English script and English speaking actors. An A-list cast including Anna Paquin, Alfred Molina, and Patrick Stewart not only give the film's character's authentic accents but do a more than admirable job with the dense, concept and exposition heavy dialogue. The script is also at times extremely funny. One memorable moment is Dr. Eddie explaining the steam castle to Ray and Scarlet on board an elevator - his exposition is so standard in this kind of film that the screenwriter actually drowns it out with an argument between Ray and Scarlet.
Steamboy is not a terrible movie. It is an enjoyable, fun film. However it is not what is expected from Katsuhiro Otomo. Akira with its detailed depiction of the future, unique score, and use of a color palette specifically designed for the movie was a groundbreaking work of art.
Steamboy is a beautifully animated film with an often witty script and excellent voice acting from A-list actors. The story, however, has been seen countless times before. That it was made by a talented filmmaker whose work is often imitated but never equaled makes watching it all the more disappointing in the end.
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