April 02, 2005

Steamboy Review

Steamboy Official Site

Went out tonight to go see Steamboy, the latest from Katsuhiro Otomo, the man who did Akira. Akira was one of the first anime movies I'd ever seen, along with (I believe) Laputa: Castle In The Sky, so I was very anxious to see this movie. Reviews had been mixed, and so I went with a little trepidation, but enough anticipation to make me happy to be going to see it.

Overall, it's not bad. Not fantastic, just not bad. The story involves a young boy, his dad, and his grandfather; all are "scientists" -- really, mechanical engineers rather than scientists -- in a steampunk-based London of 1866. And when I say "steampunk", I mean steam as the means of power for everything. It's all over the place; trains, auto-gyros, zepplins, you name it. The grandfather and father are involved in some experiment, which goes partially wrong. The result -- a power source called a "steamball" -- gets mailed to the young boy (Ray Steam), who then is hunted down by several groups, none of which can be called "good guys". One side includes the O'Hara Foundation, owned by -- swear to God -- Miss Scarlett, a prepubescent little moppet who vascilates between caring and downright draconian. From there, the plot gets weirder, so the rest, I'll leave to you.

As I watched, I noticed something odd. First, I didn't really care that much about Ray, per se. Ray's a nice kid, but he's not the focus of the story. Or at least, he may have meant to been the focus, but it's really not there. Nor do you really care for the father, the grandfather, or Miss Scarlett. All of them really seem very unfocused, uninspiring, and really a bit flat; very charactured, really. No one got any focus for very long, and the few that did seemed like schmucks.

Later, I'm coming to another conclusion. The focus is really power: steam-based power, mechanical power, grabs for power and attempts to rip power away from people. Shows of large power and small power. And people insisting they know more about what to do with power than one another.

Part of the problem is this: no one uses it well, including Ray. Ray's attempts to use power are the least egregious, and the closest to good. But they're still downright frustrating, in that Ray just keeps on trying to save those that, by all rights, shouldn't be saved, doing things that aren't really brave or inspiring, but just downright stupid: following what others tell him to do, listening to the last person he talked to, acting in all ways as a 10 year old does not.

The animation is stunning, and for a nearly pure action film done in animation, the feel of 1800s London is well preserved. The science part of the film is also a little loose, but not so loose as to make you want to scream bloody murder (e.g., no one's putting computer viruses into alien operating systems, but it does suppose a lot more mechanical power than 1866 London would probably have). Some of the explanation, especially the use of the release of extremely compressed gas turning things cold as a plot point -- well, the little scientist in me shouted "yippee!".

Overall, not too bad; there's been much worse animation I've seen. But it's definitely not as good in the plot department, nor in the character development as a lot of animation lately (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Akira especially.) But go anyway -- maybe companies will see people coming over, and make more.

Posted by Ted Stevko at April 2, 2005 10:47 PM