By Rory L. Aronsky | July 29, 2005

There is something still so beautiful in hand-drawn animation, even as Hollywood does its damndest to usher us quickly into the computer-animated age, as vapid as “Shrek 2” was and as listless as “Shark Tale” presented itself. In Japanese animation, there is a distinct care taken with each line. One line leads to another and in turn creates a human being or a massive metal monster problem or even a building that leads the eyes from one point to another in wonderment. Filmmakers like Hayao Miyazaki do that all the time and so does Katsuhiro Otomo of “Akira”, whose ten years of work has led to “Steamboy”, a different take on the steampunk genre which brings us, of all things, a looming Steam Castle, invented according to Edward Steam, the middle generation of the Steam Clan, as a way to bring this technology to all mankind, to have them embrace it for a new future. Lloyd, the oldest of the Steam family does not see it this way at all. He believes that people do not have the capability to see what is in front of them, but rather to see only what they scheme, to use the machinery for horrific reasons. Wildly differing opinions and in the middle of it, Ray Steam, the young hero of the story, that is, wherever you can find it.

What’s always been nice about Otomo’s work is that a face is a face right from the start. You look at a person’s face and you know some of their intentions right away, with explanations and actions to come later. Ray is as curious and capable as his father and grandfather, inventing away as they have. Where they feel they have come to a great scientific precipice, Ray doesn’t stop wondering. One of his inventions is some sort of hamster-wheel like contraption that is put to astounding use in an action sequence where Ray, protecting the technologically advantageous steam ball, must run from men of the O’Hara Foundation who want the ball for their own uses, that of acts of war, machines that will help them with that. Mind you, the young daughter of the O’Hara family is named Scarlett, and I thought it was just me thinking about why that was. Just like the Scarlett of that movie, this one is just as spoiled and full of complaints about this and that, never realizing the full gravity of the situation until it’s right in front of her, until she sees the damage being done.

Ray is an amazing kid, the future of whatever the future holds in the wonders of science. And the animation is exactly what you’d expect from the high-caliber mind of Otomo, with the Great Exhibition in 1866 London a true sight to see. Streamers float all around in celebration as the glass palace glistens, for all to see and marvel at. But it gets harder to watch the movie as the minutes go on, 126 minutes advertised here as a “Director’s Cut”, according to the DVD case, but truthfully just an extended English audio track, which made the film originally 106 minutes in some theaters, featuring the voices of Anna Paquin, Alfred Molina, and Patrick Stewart. Not my type of track by any means. Animation from another country deserves the voices that originally helped bring it to life, if at all possible. But even human voices can’t always carry a story as the spoiled Scarlett is one-dimensional and shrill enough to potentially cause the first homicide of an animated character. In a beautiful scene where she and Ray explore the fair after it is closed, she tries to explain her way of behavior by the fact that she doesn’t have a real mother, just people that take care of her different ways such as horseback riding and buying clothes. Not a good enough excuse for what we have to endure.

And what of the other characters? The conflict between the elder Steam men, Edward and Lloyd doesn’t completely pan out. What good is it for Edward to press on with his plans? Did his encounter with an explosion of steam change him to who he is or was there some change of mindset as he claims? As for Lloyd, he just ends up looking like a doddering old fool at times while London is under siege by the O’Hara Foundation, proud enough to show military leaders the newly built war arsenal, even at the expense of London being leveled and Exhibition attendees in peril, along with people outside Exhibition limits. That’s just the villainous way of doing things. The action just doesn’t do enough for the film. Sure it looks impressive enough to have Steam Tower rising in the middle of this Victorian London, but what good is it if you can’t latch on to who makes up a big part of the story? Not good either for the other inventor in this story, Robert Stephenson, whom it’s hard to get to know too.

This being a “Collector’s Gift Set”, it’s not only the DVD that has some good extras such as a featurette on the English voice-overs, with Paquin, Molina, and Stewart giving their thoughts on performing for this kind of animation, along with admiration by voice director Rick Zieff. It’s not just the brief interview with Katsuhiro Otomo, nor the multi-screen landscape study which splits the screen into boxes to show not only sketches, but also live-action references the animators used, along with words from the main people involved and more from Otomo himself who takes a much different view of animation than his collaborators, something more worldly and elegant. And it’s certainly not only the production drawings or showing some scenes going through each process from drawing to computers to final edit. It’s the box it comes in, the box that opens to the left. And in it, are a few extra goodies. First, a few postcards lie wrapped in tight plastic. Be prepared for either using your teeth or breaking out that dusty Jaws of Life set. You know, the one that says, “In case of zombie….” Seriously, though, these postcards are perfect to admire some of the animation, especially the London celebration scene for the opening of the Exhibition. You’ll know which postcard it is because it’s the one that makes you do a double-take. A literal double-take. The kind you see overused in old comedy films.

If you can’t read Japanese, you’re out of luck with the 22-page manga included in here, but again, more artwork to admire. But it doesn’t quite matter if you can’t read Japanese, because the 122-page booklet full of character sketches is a huge value which American companies would do well to try to mimic. This is the kind of value which should make the Disney “Platinum Edition” label even more platinum. Each character is well-defined here, right down to the military leaders that appear briefly in the film. Plus, props are covered, such as the steam ball, and all the gadgets used in “Steamboy”. To actually flip through this without the aid of a DVD remote is something that should be considered for other animated films of the future and past. Animation history is just as awe-inspiring as its live-action counterpart and what’s a few extra dollars to go into each DVD set for the stores, for those even more curious about animation in all its forms. DVD galleries are fine, but this is something priceless.

While a fine DVD gift set like this can soften some of the blow, “Steamboy” is still “Steamboy”, not able to successfully combine story and action, leaving that empty feeling that usually happens during bad comedies and films with an already-established story, segueing into too much action. In the movies, action doesn’t necessarily equal a reaction.

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