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May 20, 2024

Anime Review: Steamboy

By Mel Trent

Katsuhiro Otomo, famed director of Akira, spent a total of eight years working on the film, Steamboy. It shows. The animation is gorgeous. The story, unfortunately, also feels like something that was worked on for eight years, with each year's work being lost before anyone could remember where to pick it back up again. I don't know how else to describe how really awful this movie is except to jump right in. So here goes.

Steamboy is set in London in 1866 and tells the story of young Ray Steam, a genius inventor voiced in the English dub by Anna Paquin. I was never sure exactly how old Ray was. Seven or eight or something like that. Honestly, I wasn't paying that much attention. One day, Ray receives a package from his grandfather, voiced by Patrick Stewart, that contains a mysterious steam ball and the foreboding message that typically arrives with packages containing mysterious devices. Don't let this thing fall into the wrong hands! Ray makes a valiant effort to follow his grandfather's wishes, but the kid's no match for the steam-powered machines of the O'Hara Foundation and winds up kidnapped. Ray is taken from his home in Manchester to a castle in London where he encounters his father, whom he had believed killed in an accident in Alaska. At first, Ray agrees to help his father complete this wondrous steam powered castle, but then he learns that Dad's a nut job and no one can be trusted.

This is where the film utterly fails: the plot. Despite the beautifully detailed animation, the neat steam powered machines and the all-star voice cast that also includes Alfred Molina as Ray's father and Kari Wahlgren (Witch Hunter Robin, Wolf's Rain) as the annoying Scarlett O'Hara (don't even get me started on that), the story is so uninteresting that I made most of my notes for this review while watching the movie. As it turns out, even the people Ray's grandfather thought would help thwart Eddy Steam's dastardly plan aren't good guys. They want the steam ball for their own purposes, and of course, those purposes aren't honorable at all. The fact that there are no good guys to cheer for makes it hard to care about the outcome of the situation. Even Ray left me feeling less than sympathetic. I don't know if it was that he was too idealistic or just obtuse. He sticks to his guns on the idea that science should be used to make people happy without ever considering that power, here in the guise of science, corrupts people, even when he sees his own father falling victim to that age old plot device.

Aside from the amateurish plot, there were some other moments that fell flat. Let me rephrase that. They didn't fall flat. They just went splat. For one, Eddy's hair. He was involved in an accident that burned up half his face and messed up an arm to a point where he's had to replace the limb with a metal prosthetic. But the hair. I don't know how to describe it. It's like there are little squiggly snakes poking out of random places on his skull. It's just silly, and it looked bad. Small quibble of character design, I know, but that's just a starting point.

There were moments of painful cheesiness that went a long way towards stamping out anything good that might have happened, which, really, isn't much at all. Towards the end of the movie, Ray's grandfather gets to make the going-down-with-the-ship speech, after which he steps back into the steam to do so. Until, of course, Ray tells him that the steam castle, which has by then been turned into a steam-powered Death Star, is floating above London instead of over the Thames. Grandfather then reemerges from the steam to try to move the steam castle out over the river so it doesn't land on London. Perhaps this was meant to be a funny moment. I admit it. I laughed out loud but probably for the wrong reasons.

Scarlett, the granddaughter of the founder of the O'Hara foundation, signaled the beginning of the end for me. As soon as she showed up, I knew that I wasn't even going to get mediocre out of this movie. She's bratty, stuck up and abusive to her poor little dog, Columbus. I felt more sympathy for the dog than any character in the film. I kept waiting for him to do something cool and heroic, but he gets lost when things start to go bad in the steam castle. We never find out what happens to Columbus. Scarlett, however, gets to help save the day. I suppose that her snotty attitude is somehow equated to a certain strength of character that makes her the kind of person who gets to be the hero, but again, she's such a bitch that I found it almost impossible to care.

I won't get into the part where the ominous steam castle gets transformed into a carousel. I don't think I can bear the pain, and I certainly don't want to subject anyone else to it.

"Well, there's steam. And he's a boy," my husband remarked as he checked his fantasy football line up.

"It's just so ... so ... there's no word for it," I said.

"Insipid?" he offered.

"It's not good enough to be insipid."

But it's really pretty! In an effort to say something positive about it, I'll repeat that a few times. It's pretty.

I knew going in that this movie was bad. I had been warned. I also knew from past experience that Otomo's work does nothing for me. I have to admit it. I really didn't like Akira all that much for a lot of the same reasons I didn't like Steamboy. Both movies present interesting concepts tied to sloppy plots and painfully static characters. Despite how pretty Steamboy is, it's just not worth watching. The stills that run behind the end credits are more interesting. Even if you really liked Akira, I would recommend avoiding Steamboy like the steaming pile it is.

Article © Mel Trent. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-11-21
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