by Josh Smith & r & Steam Boy & r & When you wait nearly 14 years for the next film from an animator-director, your expectations are bound to be high. If it's taken this long to complete, it must good -- right? For casual anime fans, Steamboy stands as the follow-up picture to Katsuhrio Otomo's 1998 American debut, Akira.
Steamboy, however, much like the technology at its heart, takes some time to build up, er, steam. James Ray Steam is the son and grandson of eminent inventors Dr. Edward Steam and Dr. Lloyd Steam, who have been working in America since their ideas are too radical to be accepted in England. Once the Steamball, a device providing seemingly limitless steam power, is mysteriously delivered to the Steam household, Ray is drawn into a tale of Victorian corporate espionage. And much like an old steam-powered tractor, the movie begins to rattle and clank its way forward. Some of the storytelling is choppy; various characters at various times inexplicably change the way they act. Ray quickly begins helping his father with his work, never really questioning why his grandfather had told him why he was dead. (Me, I'd have a few questions, in particular about the new mask covering half his face.) The American voice dub tends to accentuate this impression of uneven performances, Anna Paquin's Ray comes off as overly melodramatic and just doesn't stand up next to the performances of Alfred Molina and Patrick Stewart (as Eddie and Lloyd Steam). Watching the film subtitled with the original Japanese voice cast is definitely recommended.
Despite its rattling faults, the film is a solid steam-punk story, and Otomo's animation blends traditional cell and CG animation beautifully. The film has a detail-rich look that maintains interest even when it takes odd detours into ornate steamships and a menagerie of steam-powered contraptions, from infantry suits to tanks. In its conclusion, the movie wants to preach about the misuse of science, but instead just devolves into melodrama. Yet even though Steamboy fails as a piece of social criticism, it certainly succeeds as an action-adventure film.