In England during the mid-1800s, steam was king for powering all sorts of machinery and inventions. When legendary inventor Lloyd Steam (Patrick Stewart) finds the key to mass amounts of power in a tiny “steam ball,” he finds his peaceful philosophy toward energy betrayed by his own son, Eddie (Alfred Molina). Looking to thwart Eddie’s evil plans for a enormous, heavily armed, flying steam warship, Lloyd sends the ball to his young grandson, Ray (Anna Paquin), who embarks on a cross-country adventure to protect the orb from rapidly increasing evil interests.
It’s been sixteen years since Katshurio Otomo wrote and directed the celebrated anime classic, “Akira.” A landmark mixture of post-apocalyptic punk and high-tech action, “Akira” is a godfather for what is now commonplace material in the anime market. While languishing in the production process for years, Otomo finally returns to American shores with “Steamboy.”
If his goal was to get as polar opposite from “Akira” as he could, Otomo has succeeded greatly with “Steamboy.” Gone is the unwelcoming landscape of Neo-Tokyo, replaced here with a large-scale Victorian England, resting on the accomplishments of their industrial revolution. Visually, the film is a marvelous creation, with impressive attention paid to the details of the era and the location, while cleverly heightening the inventions of the age, stressing a recurrent theme of the all powerful steam behind the metal contraptions on display. Otomo’s film is highly inventive, refreshingly epic in scope, and the English voice cast fits strongly with the characters (especially, and unexpectedly, Paquin, who makes for a fine pre-teen boy), which takes away the nagging problem of ambiguity that typically comes with a dubbed film. “Steamboy” uses imagination and action to tell its story, which is refreshing and exciting. The film isn’t burdened with message preaching or even the inclusion of cute and cuddly, unless you count an appearance by a young Scarlett O’Hara (yes, that one), but she comes off as a squeaking pill, just like her future literary counterpart.
Controversy arrives with knowledge that for its American release, “Steamboy” was trimmed by 20 minutes. Frankly, the new cut flows incredibly well, leaving character fat, not development, behind in favor of pace and story. Purists will expectedly (and deservedly) scoff, but the last half of the film covers the slow and exhaustive destruction of England. While Otomo’s visuals depicting the event’s mass carnage and destruction are elegant and towering, the magic of “Steamboy” wears out immediately. A little sharpening of focus doesn’t hurt the film at all, and does little to tarnish Katshurio Otomo’s beautifully realized new production.Rating: B+