“Special effects without a story is a pretty boring thing” – George Lucas
“Steamboy” is pretty to look at, the outlandish inventions come to life and the battle sequences near the end of the film are stunning in their detail. With that said, the rest of the film is a gross disappointment. Being Katsuhiro Otomo*s first feature length animated movie since the ground breaking “Akira”, “Steamboy” had a lot to live up to and fails in most respects.
Young inventor Ray Steam finds himself caught in a battle between his grandfather and his father over an invention known as the “steam ball” which possesses a limitless amount of energy. Whereas Ray’s father wishes to possess the ball in order to share technology with the masses, Ray’s grandfather works equally hard attempting to stop his son at all costs, sensing the danger of giving the public such a dangerous gift. As Ray struggles to stop his father from activating the “steam tower”, a humongous battle station, he finds an unlikely ally in spoiled rich girl Scarlett.
Perhaps the key to understanding where “Steamboy” goes wrong is in understanding why Otomo’s previous animated feature “Akira” was such a success. Where “Akira” had amazing visuals it also had a mind bending storyline and three dimensional characters to back it up. “Akira” showed viewers that an animated film could possess the same emotional depth and thematic richness of a live action one. What becomes sadly apparent at around the halfway point of “Steamboy” is how little story there actually is being carried out by the stock characters. Ray is a hero in that he wants to do good but is fairly unengaging as a character. His two character traits are: 1. He likes to invent. 2. He doesn’t want people to get hurt. While both admirable traits in real life they do not provide the audience with a particularly memorable protagonist. Compare him to the rich character of nerd turned god Tetsuo from “Akira” and the difference in character development is striking. Likewise most of the characters who surround Ray are all one dimensional: Ray’s father wants to get the steam tower working, his grandfather does not, Scarlett is a brat. These are the characters defining features and they are never allowed to truly grow inside the story.
Instead of building up the drama within “Steamboy”, most of the effort seems to have been put into the visuals, which are amazing. Highlights include Ray using a wheel powered by an engine to escape from a tractor and the entire last half hour war sequence involving the “steam tower”. Yet even when the visuals are at their best there is never any real pull for the audience. Much of the film consists of bickering between Ray’s relatives and Ray only begins to impact the battle within the last fifteen minutes. There is one wonderfully warm sequence where Ray and Scarlett explore a fair after hours but it is brief and any follow up subtle, effective moments such as this are sadly absent from “Steamboy”.
If anything, “Steamboy” seems like a pilot for an ongoing series. Characters are introduced but there is no true payoff for the audience. Adding to the sense of “Steamboy” feeling unfinished is a series of still images over the end credits indicating what will happen to these characters in the years to come. Amazingly many of these still images possess more power than in most of the explosions and screaming matches that took place in the film. One almost wishes these scenario’s had been made into a movie instead of the senseless violence that took up most of the film’s running time.
“Steamboy” is a mostly entertaining visual treat and while better than a lot of other films out there, pales in comparison to what might have been.