Released in 2004, Steamboy examines the subject of technology and the modern world through a paucity of plot and an overabundance of vision. It demands a big-screen visit, which is exactly what you’ll get this Sunday when the Ken hosts a pair of no-April-fools screenings.
Reminiscent in design of Disney and Richard Fleischer’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and several more of author Jules Verne’s big screen adaptations to come out of Hollywood in the early ’60s, Katsuhiro Otomo’s obsessive recreation of 19th-century London and the industrial revolution is a triumph in dramatic animation.
Otomo’s epic vision spared no expenses. At a cost of $22 million American, it became Japan’s most expensive animated film.
A gifted teenage inventor — Ray Steam comes from a long line of tinkerers — acts as our guide. With dad off in Alaska, Ray receives a parcel from his grandfather containing a metallic orb. According to the pre-credit sequence, the sphere is a supreme source of power known as the “steam ball,” a radical (and potentially profitmaking) step forward in technology.
No sooner is it unwrapped than two dark figures come a-calling for the boy and the hunt begins. By truck, locomotive, and Zeppelin the chase continues, pitting son against father against grandfather on an exploration of trust, authority, and imagination.
And steam. So much so that the press notes actually included a brief history of condensation.
The idea of a world operating on mechanical steam machines came to Otomo in 1994 during the filming of Memories. To give Steamboy the extra dimensionality it needed, Otomo hand-picked a “dream team” of animators and together they devised a new and then unrivaled digital animation system.
The film’s message is clearly, if not overly, stated: technology should be used for the betterment of mankind, not its obliteration. Otomo employs this truism as a springboard, helping to free up plot constraints and focus instead on the various levels of discovery for both director and character.
The camera’s traversal of the three-dimensional landscapes is spectacular. But gravitational bearing, particularly in long shots, remained wobbly, and the rotoscoping, as always, adds starch to the silk. At least characters don’t freeze in their tracks to deliver a line of dialogue. Bugs Bunny can walk and talk at the same time, why can’t the kids over at Studio Ghibli?
Steamboy screens April 1 at midnight and the next day at 11 a.m. The Ken will have a 35mm print of the American-dubbed stoner and kid-friendly version.