James Ray Steam (Ray for short) is the third in a line of genius inventors who have learned to harness steam to create powerful machines. In his possession is a mysterious ball that his grandfather has tasked him with keeping -- but the O'Hara Foundation wishes to possess it for military purposes. At the center of it all: the imposing Steam Tower built in the heart of London, and its keeper: none other than Ray's father, Eddy.
Welcome to the Steam Age.
I've spent almost a week thinking about how to go about this review. You see, Steamboy is a visually incredible film. The background work is incredible, and Otomo's vision is just absolutely tremendous when it's fully realized. It is well-established that Steamboy took ten years and some $26,000,000 to produce, the most expensive anime feature to date. I'd been waiting for this film since seeing art for it in a Newtype as a newbie anime fan.
But all the money in the world can not buy you good character development or good pacing, and it certainly can't buy you a five-star film.
My big complaint with Steamboy is simple: it very often just doesn't make any damn sense. From the ridiculous overkill attempts of the O'Hara Foundation to capture the young protagonist, to the predictably lightswitch transition of the embarrassingly named Scarlett O'Hara (*sigh* yes, that's really her name, and yes, we've seen this before in anime) from obnoxious spoiled princess to obnoxious semi-useful ally, to the whole concept of Steam Tower itself, this movie is simply riddled with a frustrating plethora of plot holes and bizarre logic leaps. Several action scenes (mostly those involving Jason and Alfred) seem added simply to pad out the runtime of the movie, and all the "surprise twists" are either so obvious as to be ineffective or so out of left field that they leave you shaking your head.
Of course, anime is often riddled with byzantine, incomprehensible plots and left-field twist endings - Otomo's own Akira is one example, and shows like Evangelion and its zillion successors have used this storytelling tactic to the point of it becoming a basic trope of Japanese animation. Yet, I've seen several reviewers elsewhere accusing the film of not being Japanese enough -- folks who apparently are unaware that Japanese animation has been borrowing themes and even novels wholesale from the West since its inception. (Anne of Green Gables? Little Women? Starship Troopers? All turned into anime.) "Japaneseness" is generally a tenuous, if not outright shallow criterion for judging anime. If anything, Steamboy actually injects Japanese sentimentality in places that seem odd given the setting; Jason and Alfred act suspiciously Japanese for being "American thugs", even during the Victorian era. While the environmental themes somewhat parallel some of the criticisms of the "mechanization of society" during the historical time period (ie Dickens), especially given the real life incidence of accidents involving steam technology, they still seem laid on way too heavily here to make sense given the setting.
Some major quibbles include the choice of character design for Eddy (Ray's father), who just looks silly, and the whole bit with the amusement park. I won't explain it, largely because I can't. Finally, the whole concept of the "pure water" that magically makes the Steam family's machines better than everyone else's is simply cringeworthy to anyone with any sort of knowledge of chemistry. (You don't need to go to Iceland to distill water!)
The single largest problem is that I never feel any reason to care about Ray or Scarlett or anyone else in this movie, not for a second. Ray never feels fully developed, but simply follows the motions of What a Boy Protagonist Must Do. Scarlett, for her part, never gets punished for kicking her Chihuahua or otherwise being utterly annoying, though apparently she grows up to be this world's Amelia Earhart (which, I guess, means that she'll end up lost in the middle of the Pacific).
Still, the animation deserves mention for being as good as it gets in the modern era. This is one slick movie. Even non-anime fans will be somewhat impressed by the backdrops and the machinery, though there are a couple of scenes that feel gratuitous (the rotation of the camera angle within the house during the chase scene being the clearest culprit). But unlike animation reviewers, I do not believe skilled animation can hold up a show on its own without a good story or concept, and it certainly can't hold up a show as overwrought and bloated as this one.
Steamboy makes the mistake of including large blocks of outright silliness that knock the foundation out from under what is supposed to be a high-concept film, as if Otomo was building this movie like a game of Jenga. Eventually, without enough support, it doesn't matter how big it gets before it collapses in on itself.
Still, it isn't outright bad, and it's by and large easy on the eyes. If anything, this film is valuable as a testbed for animation techniques, an item of visual interest, and as a case study of how not to handle a film production. Now that he's got Steamboy out of his system, maybe Otomo has knocked off the rust and he can move on to something better and simpler.
Energetic, but soulless, Steamboy succeeds only in impressing with its visuals, as the plot and characters are utterly forgettable. If you can ignore the plot and characters and watch this just for the steampunk factor, you can add another star. — Carlos Ross
Recommended Audience: Being an action movie, one should expect some amount of violence when things get out of hand. And it does.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD, bilingual
Review Status: Full (1/1)
Steamboy © 2005 Studio 4°C, Sunrise, TOHO
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