by William Furlong
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In 1988, Katsuhiro Otomo blew me away with a film called Akira. It was the first Japanese anime film I’d ever seen, probably the first a lot of Westerners had ever seen, and remains, seventeen years later, the very best. I’ve often lamented that fact after seeing a Ghost in the Shell or a Metropolis, muttering to whomever would listen that, “it was okay, but it was no Akira.” So it’s gone over the years, like Charlie Brown and his football, me attending anime films, hoping against hope that I’ll be blown away once again.
Now comes Steamboy, billed as “the most expensive anime film ever made”, in production for ten years and most importantly, written and directed by the man himself, Katsuhiro Otomo. Set in and around London in the middle of the 19th century, the story opens on young Ray Steam (voiced by Anna Paquin), an inventor and dutiful son whose father, Edward Steam (Alfred Molina) and grandfather, Lord Steam (Patrick Stewart), also inventors, are away in America. (If only the family name were Coal, we’d have a very different film.) Soon Ray receives a mysterious package from his grandfather, followed immediately by mysterious strangers who want the package for themselves. Suddenly Ray is off, bouncing across the English countryside in a vehicle of his own design - sort of a wagon wheel with Ray as the spokes, and a “trackless locomotive” in hot pursuit. Ray soon finds himself caught between the wishes of his father and grandfather as well as the maneuverings of the American profit-happy O’Hara Foundation and the English government, all set against the backdrop of the 1851 World Expo in London.
The package contains a steamball, which seems to be the industrial revolution equivalent of a nuclear reactor. Using pure water found only in Iceland and Alaska and a process involving “intense density and intense pressure”, the ball provides nearly limitless steam power. Ray’s father plans to use the steamball to power his steam-castle, including his steam-soldiers. Eddie should think about creating a steam-PR-firm to work on those names, it’s all about brand recognition.
The look of the film is often amazing, nearly totally hand-drawn with a few CG additions here and there. Long, wide shots of London during a ticker tape parade made my hands twitch, thinking of the work it took to animate all those tiny, fluttering pieces of colored paper. Conversely, Otomo used a bland, brown color scheme for much of the film, interesting in that it creates an almost sepia toned filter, but ultimately it drowns us in drabness. A big problem with animating a film about steam is that it comes off as large, curvy swaths of empty space on the screen, and there were plenty of scenes featuring those empty spaces. The sheer volume of hissing pipes, popping rivets, exploding ducts, cracking valves and wildly spinning dials is enough to convince any steam-heated apartment dweller to switch over to central heating and air, post haste.
The Jules Verne inspired inventions were delightfully bizarre contraptions, often placing function far above form. Especially Ray’s hastily designed steam-pack, which looked exactly like an office chair with no seat, steam firing from all five legs. I laughed aloud at the steam-soldiers — gun-toting suits of armor — until I learned that there were men inside them. What’s the point of that?
Steamboy works for about half of the film, but even then it feels like too many shortcuts were taken around character development. Take the young daughter and heir apparent to the O’Hara Foundation, Scarlett. She appears as a spoiled, selfish lass who smacks her dog and yells at absolutely everyone, especially Ray, yet she spends the second half of the film stalking through scene after scene, demanding Ray’s safety. Ditto for Eddie and Lord Steam, who as father and son had the opportunity to engage in some truly Shakespearian dramatics, but treat each other more like frustrated co-workers, or an old married couple.
The last forty minutes devolve into an endless action sequence, thought not a particularly interesting one. Character motivations change suddenly and without cause. Throughout, the hulking, shuddering steam-castle floats over and stomps through London with wild abandon, crushing and freezing the city in equal turns. It’s nice to see a city other than Tokyo get smashed in an anime film, but only for so long. And when the film ends, it ends. You’ll have to get your closure elsewhere.
It’s difficult for me not to recommend the fruits of ten years of hand-drawn labor, but ultimately Steamboy doesn’t have the whimsy of Spirited Away, the wit of The Incredibles or the heart of Monsters Inc. I’ve read that Otomo worried about obtaining funding for the project and so scaled back the harsher elements of the story to make it more kid-friendly, to get a PG-13 rating. You can feel it in the final product, a bigger story, a darker story, wanting to be told.
It was okay,sigh, but it was no Akira.
William Furlong is a film critic in New York.
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