The latest feature from writer and director Katsuhiro Otomo is a curious work that thrives on incongruity. Japan's master of anime isn't the first to combine traditional cell animation with state-of-the-art CGI technology, but his decision to set his most ambitious project-at $27 million, Steamboy is the most expensive animated movie made outside the United States-in Victorian England during the height of the Industrial Revolution is inspired. The contrast of his cartoonish characters acting out their fate in a veracious world of giant gears and pistons, shrouded by translucent clouds of convincing steam, produces an aesthetic tension absent in the best work of Western animators.
Similarly, Otomo delights in positioning lengthy philosophical exhortations between dizzying action scenes. Imagine George Lucas on steroids. Steamboy not only sets father against son, he forces a third generation to make impossible decisions of life and death. Will young hero Ray (Anna Paquin) embrace his idealistic but implausible grandfather, Lloyd (Patrick Stewart), who dreams of a future shaped by benevolent science, or will he accede to his cynical but persuasive dad, Eddie (Alfred Molina), who reasons that a better future can be achieved only through bitter compromise? Meanwhile, London is being demolished by steam-troopers wielding anachronistic weapons of mass destruction that make for great visuals. The city blows up good, but the narrative never loses sight of its moral imperatives.
Steamboy opens in Alaska-another incongruity-with Lloyd and Eddie attempting to harness a new energy created by compressing steam at high densities and sealing it in a metal container the size of a pumpkin-a steamball with the power of a modern nuclear reactor. The experiment goes awry, and Eddie is left disfigured and deranged. Now at odds about the means and end of their project, Lloyd and Eddie nevertheless reconstitute their lab in the middle of London under the auspices of the O'Hara Foundation, a capitalistic enterprise without a conscience that funds their research solely for profit.
When Lloyd can no longer abide the corporation, and decides that Eddie has morphed into Dr. Frankensteam, he steals one of the precious balls and sends it to his precocious grandson, Ray, for safekeeping at the family home outside Manchester. Thugs from the O'Hara Foundation kidnap Ray and bring him and the pilfered steamball to London on the eve of the Great Exhibition, where Eddie plans to display the power of his steamballs to the world. Alas, that power has taken the form of fantastic armaments that the O'Hara Foundation intends to sell to the highest bidders. Ray must decide whom to trust-Lloyd, Eddie, or Stephenson, another scientist in the employ of the British government, which has its own designs on steam technology.
Otomo and his team of animators traveled to Britain to research the movie, visiting the Palm House in Kew Gardens (a stand-in for the Crystal Palace, the lost centerpiece of the real Great Exhibition of 1851) and the National Railway Museum in York (with its cutaway display of a real locomotive), a trip that clearly influenced the artists. Steamboy offers spectacular panoramas of London as well as detailed illustrations of period architecture, not to mention exquisite renderings of real and imaginary machinery in almost every frame. Unlike the cartoon nature of the characters, the world they inhabit is entelechic. We can smell the grease of the flywheels and feel the clammy dampness of the factory steam and Thames mist.
The animators set themselves other challenges. One scene exists solely to show off their skills at recreating complicated shadows, another to capture reflections in shattered glass, another to bend light through a series of magnification lens...the effects are ingenious. Needless to say, their ability to evoke the transparencies of steam will become a standard for judging future work in the genre.
Otomo, who directed Akira (1988) and scripted Metropolis (2001), lacks the blithe touch so typical of his American counterparts, although he does include comic relief in the form of Scarlett (Kari Wahlgren), heiress to the O'Hara fortune and foil to Ray. Though the movie is extraordinarily explosive, after the fashion of Independence Day, and might be too much for young children, Steamboy eschews graphic violence. Rather, the film's extended debates on the ethics of science, government and personal responsibility would recommend it to critics of a medium that too often panders to audiences.