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Reviewer: Rowena Lim Lei 08/31/2005

James Ray Steam is a brilliant young man descended from a family of genius inventors. Ray's father Dr. Edward Steam, and grandfather Dr. Lloyd Steam, are in the United States working on a project. Meanwhile, Ray remains in England with his mother -- carrying on the Steam family legacy of working on various inventions while working at a nearby factory and studying. One day, Ray receives a package containing the "steam ball", a compact steam-powered energy source his grandfather invented. Shortly after Ray gets the steam ball, strange men who claim they were sent by the foundation Ray's father and grandfather are working for try to coerce Ray into giving it to them. Ray's grandfather suddenly appears out of nowhere and orders Ray to flee and take the steam ball to a man named Robert Stephenson. A bewildered Ray escapes with the steam ball... not knowing where he's going or what's going to happen next.

Taking a whole decade to materialize, Steamboy should perhaps be considered as Katsuhiro Otomo's ("Akira") magnum opus. It was the rage when we went to Japan last April, as our arrival date coincided with Steamboy's Japanese DVD release. Practically all the anime shops and subway stations had Steamboy banners, posters, and various promotional materials plastered all over. There were even TV plugs ever so often during the few times I would tune in our TV at the hotel. Tokyo had Steamboy fever, and I was all but clueless as to what the fuss was about. Whatever it was, I was not willing to shell out 10,000 yen for the Steamboy Memorial Box everyone was drooling over.

A few months later, I get my R1 DVD copy of Steamboy. Good thing it didn't cost me anything near 10,000 yen. Visually impressive as Steamboy was, I couldn't help but think "...that's it?" right after I watched it. A young boy is caught in a family conflict and is eventually forced to take sides. In this case, Ray Steam has to decide which ideal to work for: the ultimate power for mankind, as his father Dr. Edward Steam is pursuing; or peace, happiness, and the greater good for mankind, as his grandfather Dr. Lloyd Steam believes in. Amidst the falling out between his father and grandfather, Ray gets to dodge bullets, fly around using a steam-powered apparatus, and save a damsel-in-distress. I admit, I was sort of let down by the flat and unevenly paced plot. When the characters are not discussing steam and its many uses (steam ball, steam tower, etc.), they're busy turning valves and shouting, or they're trying to escape dangerous situations. I don't know why but I could not really feel excited even as the mechanisms threatened to explode and all. While there's no shortage of vigorous action scenes, the film felt strangely anti-climactic. Take note that the end credits show a lot of interesting still images, "photographs" of events which I assume take place right after the whole steam ball fiasco. A nice finishing touch, but that's about it. Steamboy actually reminded me a little bit of Otomo's animated short "Cannon Fodder" (featured in "Memories") for some reason.

The audio visual aspect is where Steamboy truly shines. It's obvious that no expense was spared in preparing this magnificent smorgasbord for the eyes and ears. I can't even begin to describe how meticulously detailed every single scene is. I was awed by just about everything onscreen. The beautifully portrayed English countryside looked like a landscape that had come to life, while the city of London came off every bit as authentic and industrialized as that time period would allow. Character designs are more realistic than animesque, giving Steamboy an almost live-action feel. Animation is smooth as silk, a perfect merging of 2D and 3D, cel and computer imagery. I can guarantee even non-anime fans would be very much overwhelmed by the whole spectacle. The English dubbing is commendable. Anna Paquin does a good job of playing a teenage boy, albeit her supposed-to-be English accent is rather wanting. Her co-stars all do wonderfully though. I enjoyed listening to Dr. Edward, Dr. Lloyd, and Scarlett deliver their lines. I actually felt the English dub track suited the film better than the Japanese track did.

Steamboy is typical family entertainment fare -- except for the fact that Otomo infuses an extremely simple and straightforward story with philosophical angles that serve little purpose but to make things seem more complicated than they actually are. Really, no amount of pondering can make Steamboy anything more than what it is -- a visual tour de force, but not much else. Overall disappointing and over-hyped, but still worth watching.

Steamboy's running time is 126 minutes. I wonder if Katsuhiro Otomo is a fan of "Gone with the Wind"? He did name Steamboy's main female character Scarlett O' Hara...

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Review Title:
120 Minutes
General Rating:
3.5 out of 5 stars
Suitable For:
Older Children
Adventure, Historical, Military,
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