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Steamboy [DVD]  [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
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The first feature Katsuhiro Otomo has written and directed since his watershed Akira (1988), Steamboy offers a fantastic, sepia-toned vision of the past-as-future. In place of the dystopic Neo-Tokyo of Akira, Steamboy is set in England in 1866. Young Ray Steam receives a Steam Ball, a mysterious, powerful device, from his inventor grandfather. Governments and businesses covet the Steam Ball, and Ray finds himself in a murderous conflict over its possession. He's also caught between his father, a 19th century Darth Vader who builds terrible weapons for an American arms merchant, and his grandfather, who believes science should improve people's lives. Otomo uses computer graphics to create dazzling visuals that few recent films--animated or live action--can match: monumental systems of gears and pistons; machines that dwarf the Tower of London; antique weapons of mass destruction. But the dazzling imagery can't disguise the lack of a coherent plot and the flimsiness of the characters. Steamboy is being released in a dubbed version that's been shortened by 20 minutes, and a more satisfying subtitled version that preserves Otomo's original pacing. Both versions suggest that Steamboy is the work of an important film-maker who can't quite shape his awesome visions into a effective narrative. (Rated PG-13 for action violence.) --Charles Solomon --This text refers to an alternate DVD edition.
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I thought the Extended/Director's Cut Version (126 minutes) was too long for this movie. 100 minutes is just right for those that don't really want to see almost a half hour of unending explosions. This 100 minute version gets to all of the main plot scenes without losing a beat and you don't have to see all the explosions that the Extended/Director's Cut Version (126 minutes) has.
In the mid 1800s, Dr. Lloyd Steam (Patrick Stewart) and his son Eddie Steam (Alfred Molina) are involved in top secret experimentation for the O'Hara Corporation. There's a disaster which leaves only one machine intact -- the Steam Ball.
Then Eddie's son Ray (Anna Paquin), a budding inventer, gets the Steam Ball in the mail -- and some thuggish Foundation men destroying the house to get the valuable machine. Ray escapes with the Ball, barely eluding the men, and ends up captured by a rogue zeppelin that tears a train apart. Great scene.
But the man in charge of this is none other than Ray's father Eddie, who was terribly burned and is now part machin. Eddie, who is still working for the Foundation, is in charge of the powerful Steam Tower and all the war inventions inside. Now Ray's loyalties are divided, as his father and grandfather battle in a war that has no clear "right" or "wrong" -- but which may wreck London, then the world.
If you're going to spend almost a decade working on a movie, then people expect a masterpiece. And while "Steamboy" won't change anime the way "Akira" did, it's still a prime example of the steampunk genre -- Victorian English surroundings, but with steam-powered tanks, subs and other technology.
The main plot is basically about a family's conflict over different ideas about how technology should be used. But Katsuhiro Ôtomo includes a deeper meaning to the conflict -- there's no clear-cut villain and hero here, since both Eddie and Lloyd have good intentions, though one believes in peace through power, and the other knows that power corrupts.
And the animation is amazingly detailed, so you can see every puff of steam and smear of grease. No big watery eyes here. It makes the action scenes -- including a zeppelin and train almost smashing into Victoria Station -- all the more compelling. In between, we have some solid character development, such as Ray getting to know the bratty O'Hara heiress, and experimenting with primitive subs and machinery.
But every movie has a flaw, and "Steamboy's" is that the last fourth is bloated. It's a brilliant battle -- especially the flying soldiers -- and the end itself is satisfying. But it's too slow and meandering, and has too many lingering shots of the bulbous tower over London. Fortunately it regains its footing in the last few minutes, especially when Ray takes control of the plot.
Ray himself is one of the most compelling child-heroes ever -- he's genuinely smart, resourceful and mature, but he's still young. He's only learning that not everything in life (even your family) is what it seems. And the supporting cast is also good, with a subdued Molina as Eddie and Stewart as the feisty Lloyd, who seems like an older version of Ray. And then there's Scarlett, a spoiled brat who is pretty annoying up until the final battle.
"Steamboy" suffers from a rather slow finale, but the movie itself is a brilliantly-animated, solidly-plotted adventure. Definitely worth checking out.
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