September 21, 2005
Steamboy belongs in the same category as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, that is, movies where the art is most impressive in the technique and the sum of the parts is more impressive than the whole. Steamboy, like Sky Captain, is fascinating to look at. Like Innocence, it's 2D on digital 3D, which still looks better than pure 3D efforts, and Steamboy looks great. The finely-detailed backgrounds of late 19th century London could stand as museum pieces.
But the story itself is pretty one-dimensional. It brings to mind those hokey old James Bond flicks in which some Dr. Evil is out to conquer the world with his latest Second Law of Thermodynamics-Defying Contraption. In this case, a supercharged, super-compact steam boiler that will revolutionize the mechanical world. There's even a pipe organ of sorts. No mad scientist should be without one.
As you might guess, Steamboy is about a boy (voiced in English by Anna Paquin) who's around steam a lot. Like I said, not a lot of nuance. His father (Alfred Molina) is at loggerheads with his grandfather (Patrick Stewart) over the ethical implications of the invention, and their little disagreement ends up taking out a good portion of downtown London. Think of it as a steam-powered version of Godzilla, a roller coaster ride that ends with a gigantic, flying train wreck.
The ostensible bad guys are a bunch of arms-dealing Americans funded by the (Scarlett) O'Hara Foundation (grin). The mannered but only slightly less corrupt Brits are led by Robert Stephenson (drawn a lot like Roger Moore), obviously a nod to the 19th century inventor, George Stephenson, the "Father of the British Steam Railways." And, of course, an annoyingly bratty girl (the aforementioned Scarlett), who is unexpectedly entertaining in all her brattiness.
In the original Japanese, at least. In the English version, she's more annoying than entertaining. (Japanese voice actresses have a gift for amusing annoyance that's all their own.) Otherwise, the dub is one the best I've heard.
Director Katsuhiro Otomo, who gained fame for his apocalyptic cyberpunk anime, Akira, has this time around produced pure period eye candy with a world so wonderfully realized that you want to throw every other Victorian character you know into the mix. The wealth of mechanical detail as well--the whirring, clacking, hissing, thumping and grinding of gears--will keep any kid with a hint of the nerd in him on the edge of his seat just to see what gizmo they'll think up next.
Plenty of room was left at the end for a sequel, and having got the setting down pat, maybe they'll come up with a story with a bit more there there next time. In fact, the what-happens-next narrative during the credit scroll is the most complex of the movie, so be sure to watch all the way to the end. It's so good that in the DVD extras, you can watch it again without the scrolling credits in the way.