From Akira director Katsuhiro Otomo comes the most expensive animated film ever produced outside the United States, with a reported budget of $27 million. When Akira exploded onto cinema screens at the end of the 1980s, it was heralded as a Trojan horse for the launching of anime to a widespread Western audience. Naturally, Steamboy had a hefty weight of expectation on its shoulders. Otomo has become obsessed with two things: steam power and Victorian England. These are hardly the most jaw-dropping scenarios, but he uses the dawning of the industrial revolution to inject his own piece of fanciful thinking: a metal ball that holds steam at such high pressure it can power an entire nation. Ridiculous? Yes. Properly explained? Of course not.
But no amount of cool visuals can make up for the thin plot and weak characters. This “Steam Ball” is the work of a father and son partnership: the elderly Dr. Lloyd Steam and his son Eddie. After they are supposedly killed in an accident, Eddie’s son Ray receives a Steam Ball from granddad Lloyd warning him not to let it fall into the wrong hands. Not only are both Lloyd and Eddie still alive, but also Eddie is plotting to put the Steam Ball technology to disastrous effect. It is up to Ray to get from Manchester to London and stop his father in his delusional advancement of science. Anna Paquin, Alfred Molina and Patrick Stewart all lend their voices and do a wonderful job.
It’s funny because a few days ago a reader pointed out that a movie I reviewed last week was made in only 2 weeks. Thats a tremendous feat indeed, however this film was 10 years in the making! Otomo’s Steamboy lacks the intellectual scope and precision, not to mention the artistic grace or the ability of a storyteller, to make a wild children’s adventure into an intelligent pro-science, anti-war film which avoids naivety, anachronisms, and cloaked indictments. 10 years and a massive budget is no excuse for these short-comings. However, on first appearances, this film is utterly stunning.
The washed-out color scheme of browns and beiges combine with the unusually unstylized character designs to produce an anime unlike anything i’ve seen before. The neat touches such as the reflections in the River Thames and well-placed use of CGI enhance the visual style. Less amazing, is the horrid pacing of the first half. Beyond Ray evading his capturers, Otomo gets bogged down in family arguments and discussion of how advancements in technology threaten the world. There’s no trippy, Tetsuo-like dreams here, just a lot of shouting. To be quite honest, all the main character does is just fly around as things explode. The result is a film that lurches from witless philosophy to mindless action without a working plot or sub-text to glue the whole thing together. But…it’s pretty to look at, did I mention that? Slightly Recommended.