Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo
Screenplay by Sadayuki Murai, Katsuhiro Otomo
When I attended the screening of Steamboy, my friend and colleague Caballero Oscuro and I were given the opportunity to see the subtitled version or the dubbed version, which was 15 minutes shorter and featured the voices of Anna Paquin, Alfred Molina and Patrick Stewart. Since C.O. is such a serious anime fan, we chose the subtitled. I was going to describe him as a “hard-core anime fan,” but that term has a different connotation, though is no less accurate if his bachelor party was any indication of his proclivities.
Steamboy is set during Victorian England. Our hero, Ray, a young boy from a family of inventors, is sent a package containing a mysterious silver ball by his grandfather who has been working in America. Within moments of its arrival, men from the O’Hara Foundation show up at the family’s doorstep, looking for the package. Ray’s grandfather also appears and tells Ray to take the ball to a man named Stephenson.
Ray is captured and taken to the O’Hara Foundation headquarters where he finds his father at work. His father explains the power contained inside the ball is compressed steam and the building they are in is a castle powered by steam. Ray helps his father only to discover that his grandfather has snuck into the steam castle and is sabotaging it. His grandfather tells Ray the nefarious plans the O’Hara Foundation has. Ray is stuck in the middle, not sure who to trust.
The film presents intriguing ideas about the arms race and the responsibility of science, which are certainly timely, but they aren’t fully executed. Rather than watch a great story unfold, the film becomes sensory overload, a series of escalating battles with increasing levels of carnage. Of course, the weakness of the story was foreshadowed at the beginning when no explanation of how putting steam into a metal ball could create a force on the scale of nuclear fusion. It was crucial to the plot and could have used a little clarification.
There are two serious flaws that run throughout a majority of the story. While the steam castle is an amazing and serious piece of technology run by the sinister O’Hara Foundation, it is completely baffling why the leader allows his young daughter to run free throughout the complex like she is Eloise at the Plaza Hotel. These men are trying to conduct experiments and business that are serious, and at times dangerous. They don’t need a bratty girl getting in the way other than to have a damsel in distress for Ray to rescue. She was unbearable in every scene she was in, which is too bad, considering she’s the female with the biggest role in the story. And would someone explain to me why so many young girls in anime have shrill, annoying voices.
The other problem is how quickly Ray took to learning to fly. I know he’s supposed to be an inventor as well, but there’s no evidence that he has a background in aviation. If he had been in a plane or something similar, I could have suspended disbelief, but he rides a steam ball, a small orb that he attaches handles to, embracing it with his body. He whizzes around at amazing speeds, never seeming in control of the device, yet always able to get where he needs to. If it had been in short spurts, it could have worked, but to seem him navigate through the tunnels of the steam castle was too much.
The greatest disappointment is the waste of such gorgeous animation. The drawings looked great and had amazing detail. You should rent the film and then fast forward through it, pausing occasionally to appreciate the beauty and skill required in creating it. There should be a book entitled The Art of Steamboy, which I would recommend; however, the film I cannot. If they went back and cut down the last hour, it could work, but I don’t see that happening.