If, with no prior knowledge, you were told that a film called Steamboy had been booked for the next week at Landmark's Ken Cinema, you'd be forgiven for imagining a torrid tale of forbidden passion swirling around the hunky young towel attendant at a Turkish bath. But no. It is worlds away from that: a Japanese anime, set in Victorian England, where for a change the Japanese animators are relieved of their onerous duty to draw ethnic-unspecific characters, sometimes practically extraterrestrial characters, with inverted-pyramid heads, doll's eyes, and check-mark mouths. These recognizable human beings, by contrast, are Englishmen (voiced by the likes of Alfred Molina, Patrick Stewart, Anna Paquin), and no bones about it.
The retro s-f story of fantastic inventions in that setting, and of the misapplication of them for military might, will naturally and necessarily conjure up Jules Verne, one of the founding fathers, who launched his career as a writer of science fiction (or in other words, launched the genre) almost simultaneously with the date of the story, 1866. Further, that conjuration will not be dispelled by the utterance of so decorous an oath as "Blast it!" This is unmistakably a kiddie cartoon, or at any rate a cartoon suitable for kiddies, and yet it's a kiddie cartoon with no condescension. Which means, among other things, no pandering to pre-schoolers and no alienating of older nostalgists. They can keep pace as they please. At its heart, however, Steamboy is expressly a boy's adventure; and the intrusion into it of a bratty little golden-haired girl named Scarlett, together with her pet Chihauhua, cannot be warmly welcomed. It can at best be manfully tolerated.
Higher degrees of sophistication in the audience will be sure to find additional avenues of exploration, as for example the dream-logic development of the steam theme. You have, to begin with, your title character, family name of Steam, first name of Ray, a third-generation inventor whose father and grandfather have been away in Alaska on a top-secret project. And then you also have, as the poisoned fruit of that project, your Steam Ball, a self-explanatory power source about the size of a soccer ball. And you have your Steam Castle, a fortress cum laboratory that would be the envy of any James Bond villain. And you have your army of robotic Steam Troopers, more commonly called storm troopers. You could readily believe that the genesis of the entire thing had been an accident with the tea kettle in preparation of a bedtime cup of chamomile. A troubled sleep ensued....
The graphic style, replete with imaginative detail and painstaking draftsmanship, would best be described as realistic comic-book; and in truth the animation, a seamless blend of hand-drawn and computer-generated, is only marginally more fluid. But if the movement within the images leaves something to be desired, the movement between them -- the exciting juxtapositions, the tight-knit logic, the urgent tempo -- proves authentically cinematic. The action, perilously close to nonstop, is invariably large and constantly growing (by the end, as big as Godzilla and its kin), yet somehow this sort of thing seems less wasteful and more plausible when it isn't live-action. When it isn't, let's say, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Wild Wild West, to pick examples from a nearby period. Why should that be? Less encroachment of the real world, possibly, and less of a built-in touchstone of verisimilitude. More of an illusion of a private fantasy. Less tangible evidence of money and resources going up in smoke. More reliance on the thrifty pen and paintbrush.
The film's pièce de résistance, indeed a whole banquet unto itself, arrives in the form of a pitched battle in the middle of London, fought between two sides -- mercenary and nationalistic -- with equally dubious motives, climaxing in the liftoff of the aforementioned castle, shedding its august exterior, going airborne, and literally icing its surroundings. (Queen Victoria herself has to scramble for cover.) The shifting tides of the combat, and the long, sustained, crescendoing drama of it, are reminiscent of the final battle in another Japanese anime, Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, even down to the absence of a once-and-for-all resolution. That particular stretch is an expert piece of filmmaking, with no apologies necessary for the means or the medium. Katsuhiro Otomo, the filmmaker, seems to be best known over here, if he is known at all, for the 1988 Akira. I'm going to have to go back and catch up on that one.
Robots, directed by Chris (Ice Age) Wedge, represents the other kind of kiddie cartoon, the leave-no-child-behind kind: a follow-that-dream fairy tale set in a world of robots, anthropomorphized and sentimentalized to such extent that an assembly-required baby-bot will grow organically into a tot-bot and a teen-bot and ultimately (to facilitate comparison with Steamboy) a budding inventor-bot. It offers, as they say, something for everyone: fart jokes and big-butt jokes, pop-culture allusions, corporate satire, the schizophrenic voices of Robin Williams, the aesthetic of "cute." Something for everyone, at least, who's not put off by the vacuum-sealed sterility, the machine-tooled smoothness, the showroom sheen of computer animation. Or by the two-faced disparagement of money ("Profit schmofit!") and the pretense of higher principles. Those exclusions, even if they whittle down "everyone," still leave a constituency sufficiently large to ordain, by a landslide, the Number One Movie in America.
Because of the flexibility of scheduling at the San Diego Latino Film Festival, I am able to recommend, in midstream, the repeat screening of the Chilean Machuca Friday night at seven. It deals with Chile's Subject A -- Allende -- but it deals with it from the fresh, the naive, the novel perspective of a freckle-faced little redhead (an autobiographical approximation, slightly more aged, of filmmaker Andrés Wood) who befriends a lower-class charity case at his exclusive Catholic boys' school, and who experiences a broad range of coming-of-age emotions: the stirrings of liberalism (the fall of Allende will be felt as the disruption of the dream of oneness), the stirrings of sexuality (a session of three-way kissing practice with a savvy girl of the streets and a can of condensed milk is a Freudian gold mine), the stirrings of morality (disapproval of his mother's extramarital liaison, compromised by his acceptance of hardback Lone Ranger comics as a bribe from his mother's lover). These emotions are explored with complexity and courage, an ample penance for the climactic act of childhood weakness. If the total package -- the autobiography, the Catholic school, the idealistic priest, the outsiders taken in, the traumatic finale -- brings to mind Louis Malle's Au Revoir, les Enfants, it needn't shrink from comparison. True, some of Wood's arbitrary desaturation of the color, even desiccation of it, seems a tad heavy-handed, but that's just to say that additional force was uncalled-for. The film possesses power to spare. A sellout on opening night, it is a cinch to sell out again tomorrow.
A couple of amendments to last week's column. First amendment: Tony Leung is, after all, in Days of Being Wild. I didn't mean to say he wasn't. I only meant to say Leslie Cheung is in the lead. Second amendment: if I had more thoroughly read the program for the Latino fest, I would have noticed that The Human Condition: No Greater Love, one of the Guest Director's personal selections, is being shown (Saturday morning at eleven) on video. And I then would not have said how good it is to have it back on a big screen.