Katsuhiro Otomo’s groundbreaking Akira is a double-edged (or double-barreled, as it were) classic, a marvel of science fiction animé artistry that nonetheless ushered in an unwelcome era of visually spastic, narratively convoluted Japanimation features. Seventeen years (and countless imitators) later, Steamboy partially redeems Otomo’s legacy by supplying a coherent narrative to go along with its stunning imagery, though this newest effort—a familiar animé parable about the pitfalls of scientific progress and the tenuous alliance between man and machine—suffers from persistent preachiness and action overkill. Ray Steam (voiced, in a strange gender-bending twist, by Anna Paquin) is a novice inventor in 1866 Manchester following in the footsteps of his notorious father Eddie (Alfred Molina) and grandfather Lloyd (Patrick Stewart), geniuses whose desire to harness the awesome power of steam led to disgrace, tragedy, and exile in America. When Ray receives in the mail a “steam ball” (a device containing highly concentrated and powerful steam), he’s propelled into a high-flying adventure in which his idealistic grandfather and father—now a delusional cyborg intent on fulfilling his grand ambitions to bring science to the masses—battle for control of their jointly created “steam castle,” a technological marvel they plan to unveil alongside the day’s other innovative gadgets at London’s “Great Exhibition.”
Reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Disney’s The Rocketeer, the film’s numerous high-tech gizmos—including piston-powered tanks, unicycles and airships—are a fascinating hybrid of old world elements (mainly iron and steel) and futuristic fancifulness, and in a similar vein, Otomo blends traditional two-dimensional and modern computer animation while also marrying a distinctly Japanese aesthetic to his European story. This dichotomous composition gives the film a cross-cultural (and cross-generational) dynamism, but Steamboy‘s script (by Otomo and Sadayuki Murai) is all too often a leaden, didactic diatribe about the consequences of allowing science to be co-opted by shallow, war-mongering capitalists. Eddie is in league with an American weapons-manufacturing conglomerate dubbed The O’Hara Foundation (run by an impetuous girl named, in the film’s lamest bit of symbolism, Ms. Scarlet) that plans to sell its death-dealing equipment to any country with cash, while rival inventor Robert Stevenson (Oliver Cotton) plans to create competing apparatuses for the British Army. With science so corrupted by the greedy and combat-hungry, Ray must ultimately recognize (with help from his endlessly lecturing granddad) that science’s true purpose is to better humanity, not destroy it. Respite from the film’s constant reiteration of its central theme comes via an extended, exhilarating conclusion in which chaotic combat breaks out in central London, though as with his moralizing, Otomo’s approach to action is repetition. And by the 100th beautifully crafted plume of smoke and explosion of twisted metal, his gorgeous film has lost more than a little steam.