An incredible ten years in the making, Steamboy is the long awaited follow up feature by Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo. Almost seventeen years on from Akira's release you still struggle to find a film with better animation, and it's no surprise that Otomo has once again raised the bar with Steamboy in terms of 'traditional' anime work. The animation at all times is nothing less than fantastic with some of the scenes containing a breathtaking amalgamation of 2D and 3D that make beautiful panoramas leap into life. This isn't Pokémon folks, this is art! Set in England in 1866 where the industrial revolution has swept the western world, Steamboy is a sepia toned hybrid of Sci-fi and alternate history. A young inventor, Ray Steam, comes into possession of a 'Steamball' - a mysterious device that can generate power similar to a nuclear reactor, yet is only the size of a football. The inventor of the device is Ray's grandfather Lloyd, a philanthropic man that has been driven almost deranged as he battles to keep the steamball from being used for evil purposes. He implores Ray to hide it before the nefarious O' Hara Foundation, an arms manufacturer, gets hold of it. One of the key figures in this corporation is Ray's supposedly dead father, Eddie Steam, another inventing genius who has turned to the darkside, Darth Vader style. He views the steamball as being a showcase of what science is capable of, furthering human endeavour, regardless of the consequences or cost. As army leaders from around the globe assemble to bid on the new-technology weaponry of the O' Hara Foundation, the British goverment send forces led by Robert Stephenson (a character named after the historical inventor) to acquire the steamball. A conflict ensues that spirals out of control, with London turning into a warzone.
One thing that I definitely enjoyed about this movie was the English voice acting, with all the leads doing sterling work, primarily the three generations of the Steam family with Patrick Stewart as Lloyd, Alfred Molina as Eddie, and Anna Paquin as Ray; with all three affecting 'Aay by Gum pet, we're from oop North' accents. Stereotypical, yes, but also very quaint and amusing. Even though this is a Japanese film, and has typical anime action, it would be rather incongruous listening to working class people in Victorian England talking Japanese. So this must be one of the few occasions where a later dialogue dubbed version is better (or at least more fitting) than the original, and it certainly is fun seeing an animated film with big budget effects set in 19th Century Britain. The film's painted landscapes of Northern England with factories and mills dotting the land belching sooty smoke into the sky are uniquely atmospheric. In this film you see why London was nicknamed 'The Smoke' as Otomo's use of a muted colour palette along with the conveyed sense of smog and grime really give you a feel of the heavy pollution of the age. Throughout the film, the mix of hand drawing and computer generated graphics give dazzling visuals that any film would be proud of. The intricasy of the drawings and the design of the machines and weapons on show are full of the flair you would expect from Otomo and his team. What struck me is how complicated the artwork is. Each sprawling array of gears, cogs, and rivets on the fantastical machines had to be hand drawn and animated at some point, and the use of camera moves and 'lenses' make the film vibrant and alive. It's stunning looking undoubtedly. What lets the film down, however, is the flimsiness of the plot. The character development is poor. The film is really just one big chase that follows possession of the steamball with each character giving a monologue on the (im)morality of power peppering each chapter point before it all peaks twenty minutes too soon in a flurry of explosions. When the film was released theatrically in America it was cut by twenty minutes which would surely have affected the pacing, but this version is Otomo's original version and it still feels wrongly paced, with replicated scenes and an elongated ending that just goes on and on, really detracting from the whole spectacle. The names of the characters are a bit much as well, look at the evidence - Ray Steam, a boy who happens to be an inventor of steam machines, and is obsessed with steam, just like his genius dad, Eddie Steam, and his genius granddad Lloyd Steam. Even Marvel comics would balk at that carry on. I presume if their surname was Titty they'd be a family of breast enhancing plastic surgeons! There's also another character, a spoilt brat named Scarlett O' Hara - I guess Otomo is a 'Gone with the Wind' fan. I don't get the point of using these names and puns as the story itself is presented in a serious, non jokey way. Anyway, Steamboy is an enjoyable film that's let down by the lack of an effective narrative. It's definitely worth watching, but it's simply not all it could have been.