2 stars (out of 4)
Though Katsuhiro Otomo's animated Victorian-era adventure "Steamboy" stars British characters, it's a Japanese film through and through.
Otomo, who directed anime's "Citizen Kane" in 1988's "Akira," returns to familiar genre motifs of city-leveling monstrosities and man's unworthiness to wield such destructive power.
In this dubbed-into-English 106-minute version, Anna Paquin voices Ray Steam, a young Manchester boy from a distinguished gene pool of inventors, including his father, Eddie (voiced by Alfred Molina), and grandfather Lloyd (voiced by Patrick Stewart), at war with each other. Ray, a boy with "valves and pistons in his blood," gets caught in the struggle for his grandfather's "steam ball" invention, a portable steam engine that harnesses natural resources.
Otomo's original 120-minute subtitled version, which was not screened for critics, will be shown during the same run at Landmark Century Theater. But the version I saw, though visually stunning, suffered from some jarring edits, bizarre character reversals and general lack of narrative cohesiveness.
Otomo and his staff have produced a wondrousretro landscape of steam gadgets and Victorian architecture, but spectacle wins out over story mechanics. The grandeur of the family's Steam Castle at London's Great Exhibition can't overcome the stilted, expository dialogue employed to constantly remind us that, in the wrong hands, technology can destroy us all.
"He's sold himself to the capitalists!" says Lloyd of his son Eddie, who uses steam technology to produce weapons for the world market.
There's a swipe or two at American foreign policy, as the principal arms dealer is Scarlett (voiced by Kari Wahlgren), a spoiled, cruel little girl who runs the O'Hara corporation (note the "Gone With the Wind" reference), which funds and benefits from all steam research. Dressed only in red, Scarlett sees her weapons business as nothing more than war games, until she's caught on the battlefield.
As in many anime films, "Steamboy's" finale brings a monster truck-like monolith down on a major metropolitan city (this time, London). Though the brave, resourceful Ray isn't Godzilla saving Tokyo from another skyscraper-size foe, the stakes are the same and Ray's heart is just as big.
Too bad the rest of "Steamboy" is only hot air.
Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo; written by Sadayuki Murai and Katsuhiro Otomo; story by Jim McClain and Ron Mita; art direction by Shinji Kimura; music by Steve Jablonsky; edited by Takeshi Seyama; produced by Shinji Kimura and Hideyuki Tomioka. A Sony Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:46. MPAA rating: PG-13 (action violence).
Ray Steam - Anna Paquin
Eddie Steam - Alfred Molina
Lloyd Steam - Patrick Stewart
Scarlett - Kari Wahlgren
Jason - David S. Lee
David - Robin Atkin Downes