Superheroes are known for showing up on the scene just in the nick of time, but in the case of Astro Boy and his big-screen debut, it's clear that his arrival comes too late to really matter.
The star of both comics and television as well as an early model for anime, Astro Boy has been around for well over a half-century, finding immediate success in his Japanese homeland before marching on to international acceptance. A big-budget animated extravaganza from Hollywood was probably a predetermined fate, but turning up at a time when slick superhero sagas are often the rule rather than the exception -- even in the toon field (The Incredibles, Bolt) -- limits the film's ability to stand out from the pack.
In a futuristic city that hovers well above a largely forgotten Earth, the brilliant Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage) is so attached to his young son Toby (Freddie Highmore) that, after the boy is accidentally killed, the grief-stricken scientist elects to revive him in a manner that mixes elements of both Frankenstein and Pinocchio. Tenma places Toby's memories in an advanced robot powered by a celestial power source, but he soon realizes he hasn't exactly created (in Geppetto's words) "a real boy." But while Tenma ends up shunning Toby, the opportunistic General Stone (Donald Sutherland) realizes he can use the lad for his own nefarious schemes.
Astro Boy is full of incident, and it picks up even more steam when its hero lands on Earth's surface and falls in with a Fagin-like scoundrel (Nathan Lane) and his young charges. Yet attempts at profundity (themes of societal prejudice are emphasized) yield erratic results, and while the film is visually attractive and the vocal performers are well chosen, at the end of the day there's little to really distinguish this from similar family films about a young outcast who combats loneliness before meeting other colorful characters. Just dub this one Where the Mild Things Are.