Steamboy (2004)
Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * ½

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In late Nineteenth Century England, a young boy, James Ray Steam, receives a package from his grandfather, Lloyd Steam, containing that man's most important invention, a ball filled with concentrated steam capable of generating enormous amounts of power. No sooner has this arrived, however, than a group of thugs comes to take it. Although Ray flees from these men and contacts his grandfather's associate, Robert Stephenson, he is, nonetheless, eventually captured. Ray's abductors then take him to a marvelous steam driven castle built in London by the boy's own father, Eddie Steam, whom he had believed to be dead, for a munitions company owned by a spoiled young girl, Scarlett O'Hara.

While it is flawed, Katsuhiro Otomo's animated movie Steamboy is so filled with exhilarating moments and mesmerizing images that it is sure to delight nearly any viewer.

From its beginning until its end the film is absolutely gorgeous to look at. I must concede that I did not care for all of the character designs, especially those used for younger persons, but everything else in the movie is so nicely animated that, whatever its minor problems, Steamboy's charming visual qualities are sure to keep the viewer entranced. The backdrops are consistently lovely, presenting a quaint, idealized vision of Victorian England consisting of rolling green fields, half-timbered houses, and great cities filled with a plethora of impressive structures. As appealing as these details are, however, the steam powered technological items which repeatedly appear throughout the movie are even better. At different points, Otomo reveals an impossible castle able to float above the buildings of London, a train engine-like vehicle racing through the streets of an idyllic town, a dirigible chasing a young boy, soldiers marching in mechanical suits of armor, others flying through the air on motorized wings, and so much more. I cannot even begin to express the care with which these things are realized and the strange beauty with which they are suffused. The movie really is a joy visually.

Sadly, Steamboy's narrative is never as engaging as are the images used to bring it to life. While I will not claim that it is dull, it simply never has a sense of grand adventure. There are innumerable action sequences, flights, and exhibitions of diverse marvels, but, in spite of such things, Steamboy has an oddly static feel. For example, the protagonist, having been abducted by the villains who attacked his home and then taken by them to their castle in London, remains there for the almost the whole of the remainder of the movie. What is more, few of the characters are especially well developed. Several, such as Scarlett, Stephenson, and Eddie and Lloyd Steam, could have been fascinating, but their personalities, having been roughly delineated, are never explored or allowed to grow.

Whatever its shortcomings, the story Otomo tells is still fun to watch. It may not awe the viewer but it certainly will not bore him either. My complaint with it is not really that it is bad but that it is not as mesmerizing as are the movie's images. As a result, the film is merely good instead of being wonderful.

Even if the story is not enthralling, however, Steamboy's action sequences are, and they constitute a substantial part of the movie. During countless chases and battles, the viewer is treated to such sights as Ray hurtling through the skies while grasping a tiny rocket, Eddie manipulating his complex flying castle with a device like an incredible pipe organ, armies attacking a glass pavilion, jets of escaping gas freezing the turbulent waters of the Thames along with various warships floating upon them, and so much more. The film truly is exhilarating to watch thanks to these elements.

While I cannot say that it rises to greatness, Steamboy is a beautiful, exciting, and genuinely fun movie. Even with its imperfections, it is still one of the better animated films that has been made.

Review by Keith Allen

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