Astro Boy is for kids who like death, abandonment, betrayal

If you're thinking of taking the kids to see Astro Boy this weekend, you might want to know about some of the more intense moments in the film. The biting in Where the Wild Things Are has already caused an uproar, but in Astro Boy, be prepared for the on-screen death of a child. (Spoilers ahead!)

In the movie, the son of Dr. Tenma (voiced by Nicolas Cage), Toby (Freddie Highmore), gets caught in a science experiment when he wanders alone into a military lab. The experiment ends up vaporizing Toby. That prompts Tenma to build Astro Boy, the cool robot in his son's likeness.

The new film's director, David Bowers, thinks kids can handle it. "I think those sort of events are the cornerstones of drama," Bowers told a group of reporters over the weekend in Beverly Hills, Calif. "I think [the fact that] something as terrific as Astro Boy comes out of a such a terrible tragedy is really heartwarming and uplifting. I don't think it's a downer at all."

Producer Maryann Garger adds: "From all indications, kids, I think, don't really register the loss, because Astro Boy comes back so quickly in the movie. I think that's what makes the movie more than just an action-adventure movie, but there's a story, too, that's very engaging and holds your interest throughout the movie."

Tenma soon rejects Astro Boy when he realizes he'll never replace his son, no matter how perfect a robot he is. Astro doesn't just get sent to his room. He gets sent off the floating Metro City, down to the decaying surface of the planet below.

Highmore, who provides Astro's voice, thinks kids are ready to deal with abandonment issues. "It's about him trying to fit in after being rejected by his family," Highmore said in a separate interview. "Hopefully they will definitely relate to Astro Boy in that we've all got something a bit different about us, especially when we're growing up, that makes us stand out a little bit and makes it sometimes difficult to fit into a group of friends or whatever. It's the same for Astro Boy, so hopefully they can identify with that."

Living in a junkyard isn't all bad for Astro. He falls in with a group of abandoned children. So this is a world where parents regularly dump their kids. These street kids fight against robots, so when they find out what Astro's made of, there's more rejection to go around. Kristen Bell, who voices the orphan matriarch Cora, said that this subplot shows how real relationships can survive despite the hiccups of conflicts.

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"It's a great way to show a friendship that Astro builds and this sort of betrayal that happens in that friendship, if you can even call it that," Bell said in a separate interview on Oct. 9. "The sort of rocky road eventually leads them to realizing that they're true friends in the end."

The plight of abandoned children may also scare kids straight. If you're mad at your parents, don't resort to biting or running away. You'd regret it if you became one of the surface kids.

"I think that Cora probably ran away as a little girl out of rebellion that most young teenagers would have when you're fighting with your parents and you think they don't want you, and got caught up with the wrong crowd," Bell continued. "But I think she was a good enough person that she realized she missed that sense of community and that sense of family. [That] is why she's sort of the Peter Pan character to all these other little kids and kind of gives them a sense of family and makes them a family in their own right. I think when you're a kid, as much as you hate your parents, you still secretly want approval from them and everyone else. You just want to be loved and accepted."

Aside from all the family issues dredged up by the film, there's also big frigging robots trying to kill Astro Boy. That is, end his existence. Sure, he's a robot too, but it's pretty intense when he has to fight for his life in a gladiator arena, or dodge the military who want to harvest his power source. Yes, taking out his power source would be ending his life.

Astro takes the high ground in all of this action. "[Kids will] see that the way he solves the problem isn't through violence or being nasty to people," Highmore said. "Despite all his powers, he just wants to use them to help other people rather than for himself."

If you've gotten this far, you might also want us to point out that intensity in family films is nothing new. Bowers agreed that the classics of animation test children's thresholds. He thinks Astro Boy is in good company.

"I just think back to classic Disney movies like Pinocchio and Bambi," Bowers said. "I saw Snow White a few weeks ago. It's a really horrific movie. It's much more traumatizing than anything we have in Astro Boy, I really do believe."

Astro Boy opens Friday.

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