Astro Boy – The Complete Series

Astro Boy – The Complete Series (2003)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Extras: Making-of Featurette, Trailers

Many a baby boomer sat glued to their TV sets in the 1960s, entranced by Japanese cartoon shows. Long before they were redubbed "anime, " programs like "Gigantor," "Kimba The White Lion" and "Marine Boy" were welcome antidotes for the sanitized exploits of Fred Flintstone or Yogi Bear. But the one that started it all is Osamu Tezuka’s "Astro Boy." Premiering in 1952 as a "manga," or Japanese comic, "Astro Boy" has been around for over fifty years. His latest incarnation comes courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment with their new "Astro Boy: The Complete Series" DVD release.

Spread out over five discs, this "Astro Boy" set contains the complete fifty episode run of the 2003 television "update" of the character. The cover explains that twenty-nine episodes have never before aired in the US, but doesn’t state which ones. The premise is exactly the same as the manga and the 1963 series: Astro Boy is an all-powerful robot, created in the image of a deceased scientist’s son. Not only does Astro Boy possess superhero abilities like incredible strength, the ability to fly via jet-powered feet and rocket weaponry at his fingertips – literally – he is the embodiment of the Japanese concept of "kokoro," or heart. Fighting for humans and robots alike, Astro Boy battles all manner of villainy and wrongdoing to keep his home of Metro City – and gosh darn, the entire cosmos — safe.

The new version definitely maintains the spirit of Tezuka’s original concepts and in many instances the new animation even hearkens back to the 1960s series. With anime having come such a long way, there’s an element of comfort in Astro Boy keeping his retro appearance. Besides, how many superheroes look good shirtless, wearing only black speedos, a stiff, cow-licked coiff and candy red, jet-propelled go-go boots? The episodes also tackle such real-world issues as familial responsibility and universal tolerance – whether flesh and bone or circuits and bolts.

The full-screen transfers are uniformly excellent. Colors are bold and solid, with the right amount of saturation. The reds of Astro Boy’s jet boots are properly candy-hued, but never break up. The combination of pristine source elements and deep, solid blacks allow image details to come through nice and clean, even giving depth to the traditional 2-D animation. Overall, a very impressive picture, happily free of compression and digital artifacts.

Although not bad in its own right, the audio just doesn’t seem to have the same punch as the video. Presented in <$DD,Dolby Digital> stereo, there are many moments where all speakers are engaged and directional sound effects follow the action, but never drowning out the dialogue. However, what’s missing from the soundtrack is oomph, or specifically no low-end. No doubt, the original mix was designed for TV audio replication, not home theater playback. Still, a little low-frequency sweetening would have been welcome.

Supplements are sparse. An eight-minute featurette titled "The Remaking of ‘Astro Boy’" chronicles through soundbites with key creative personnel and behind the scenes video how Astro Boy was updated for 21st century audiences while respecting Tezuka. The most interesting aspect here was that in addition to dealing with changing audience expectations, there were cultural differences to surmount. For example, in Japan, fans follow Astro Boy’s tribulations as a regular boy, whereas the American emphasis would be on the superhero exploits. Interesting, no? Trailers for related titles, including "Steamboy" and "Tokyo Godfathers" round out the extras.

Whereas I might have wanted the original 1960s series, Sony’s DVD release of the "new" Astro Boy is very enjoyable and deserves a look.