When considering how to make “Astro Boy” appeal to a worldwide audience, director David Bowers kept it simple. “People who like Astro Boy will, hopefully, like the movie. And people who don’t know Astro Boy, it’ll be just a way of introducing him,” the director explained to CBR News.
The film, which opens Friday, will introduce the character to new audiences. By necessity, the film is an origin story. “It really starts out at the very beginning. We find out about Toby,” says Bowers of the early parts of the movie. Toby is soon killed and “Astro Boy is created and given Toby’s memories.” The film, thinks the director, has a simple emotional core. “It’s really about the father and the son, but then it goes off onto all this spectacle and there’s lots of comedy,” he said.
Despite the character’s tragic beginnings, the director believes it does not hamper the lighter tone of the film. “When Astro comes back, he really is [much] the same kid, so I don’t think you feel as though there’s a horrible loss even though there has been,” he explained. Bowers says he had support to keep Astro Boy’s origin intact from the studio. “Imagi is an independent studio, so their able to things the bigger studios might not want to do or might shy away from,” he said. “I was very explicit: if you’re going to do an Astro Boy movie, you can’t shy away from the more tragic elements.”
Those elements add to the emotional core of the film. “You got to have valleys to have peaks. Emotionally, I wanted it to be a bit of a roller coaster and I wanted it to be moving as well, so I didn’t want to shy away from what could be dark, but I think, ultimately, is very much light in our film,” said Bowers.
In developing the project, the director went to the source. “I read the manga. I knew I wanted to make an origin story and I knew there were elements like the gladiator battles and Hamegg were great,” Bowers recalled. “I knew I wanted an action climax that was super spectacular,” he continued. Picking and choosing from the source material, Bowers and Imagi felt free to add new elements. “There’s also an awful lot of invention and things that are new because I think it’s important from something like Astro Boy to keep moving forward.” Bowers explained. “Hopefully, I took the themes and the spirit of the Tezuka work and sort of woven new elements just to keep it fresh.”
One aspect Bowers chose not to use was the theme song from the 60s animated TV series. To the director, the song was tonally inconsistent for the film he was making. “It’s a bit old fashioned and this [film] is, hopefully, a very modern movie,” he revealed. “That’d be a little bit like “‘The Dark Knight,’ which is a fantastic movie, using the theme from the Adam West ‘Batman.'”
Imagi Studios operates both in Los Angeles and Hong Kong. Having two locations across the globe allowed the film to be produced quickly. “The time differences work out so well that our five o’clock was there nine o’clock [in the morning],” Bowers recalled. This also allowed for video conferencing between the two camps. “Every night we’d be on video conferences for an hour … so, the end of our day and the beginning of their day was always talking between us,” he explained.
Bowers also made several trips to Hong Kong. “I was out there three times for just over a week each time,” he recalled. Though there was plenty of work, he remembers the evenings featuring “a lot of eating and a lot of having fun.” The director also has roots there. “My aunt is from Hong Kong. My uncle lived there all his life,” he revealed.
Nicholas Cage gives voice to Astro Boy’s creator, Dr. Tenma, in the film. It turns out Cage had bought the rights to property years ago. “I assume he was going to play Dr. Tenma,” Bowers speculated. “And he plays Dr. Tenma in our movie so that’s good.” When the director and his team approached the actor, no one expected Cage to have any familiarity with “Astro Boy.” Once the two began talking, Bowers learned that “he was extreme familiar. Even down to details on sound effects the way characters should talk and move.”
The film opens with a 2-D sequence which explains the film’s environment and principle location. “I wanted something that looked a little retro,” Bowers said. “We ended up calling it ‘retro-futurist,’ because it looked a little retro, but it was modern enough that it felt contemporary. It was meant to harken back to the educational films of the 1950s, but sort of feel like a future version of that.” Bowers, whose background is traditional 2-D animation, was “delighted to get to put in some nice graphic shapes and have some 2-D character animation.”
Asked about the current trend toward 3-D presentation — where objects appear to have depth with the aid of special glasses — Bowers responded, “Anything that adds another dimension to the movies is wonderful.” He is less enthusiastic about the current state of the technology, specifically, the special glasses. “The glasses have a grey sheet to them, so it’s a bit like wearing sunglasses and the images get dimmed,” the director explained. “To be honest with you, I’m not 100% sure it’s more involving then a big, flat image on screen. To me, it generally looks as though everything is further away from you than it would if you’re just watching a flat film.” That said, the director does think “the recent spate of 3-D movies have done a really, really great job.”
To Bowers, the various formats of animation have to serve the story. “My philosophy is that if the story’s good, it could be shadow puppets and nobody would care,” he explained. “The story is the important thing.”