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SteamboySteamboy on DVD

The world of anime has brought us some fine work, like The Cat Returns, The Animatrix, and the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away.

From the director of Akira (which we should point out that we haven’t seen) comes the latest offering, Steamboy. It’s a large-scale, 10-years-in-the-making epic story set in 19th century England. And it’s all about steam.

Ray Steam is a brave young inventor whose father and grandfather are both respected scientists. They’ve been off in America doing some important work, and Ray has been working at a local factory. One day, after having not heard from either of the elder Steams for some time, a package arrives from the grandfather. Inside is a scientific device of some kind, with a note indicating that it must not fall into the hands of The Foundation.

Enter The Foundation, obviously looking for said device. As it turns out, The Foundation wants to use Steam’s steam device in their plan to conquer the world. But little Ray Steam and his grandfather will surely have something to say about that.

Steamboy is the work of Katsuhiro Otomo, one of the big names in anime. It features fine animation (at least as far as anime goes) mixed with CGI, an interesting premise, and some talented voice actors.

And while this is clearly a labor of love, Oliver Stone’s Alexander was, too. Steamboy seems to be taking notes from Hollywood’s barrage of epics of late. The first hour is interminable, with about four minutes of action thrown in seemingly because an action movie needs action. The second half has a lot more going on, but doesn’t really seem worth getting through the first half for.

Frankly, anime seems like a perfect excuse to make big-budget movies for much cheaper. So why, then, is there so much bloody story? We want to see more scenes of the armies duking it out, with explosions and destruction and stuff.

The protagonist, Ray Steam (voiced by Anna Paquin), is far too quick-tempered for such a character. He’ll ask someone a question, and give them mere seconds before he starts yelling, demanding an answer. And he has no cause; he seems not to want anybody to have the steam ball if they’re planning to use it. The bad guys are wrecking the city, and even though the good guys are trying to stop them (and the power of the steam ball would certainly help), Ray doesn’t want it used for such purposes (let’s hope he’s not around when the Americans invent the big bomb during WWII).

Not having seen Akira, we can’t tell you if Steamboy is a worthy follow up. Many regard Otomo as the king of anime, so apparently we have different standards. While it’s not a bad movie per se, Steamboy doesn’t have enough going for it to make it worthwhile.

For hardcore fans of the genre only.

On DVD, Steamboy is not bad, but again, not great. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the picture has frequent patches of grain and the color is extremely dull. During some of the darker scenes, it’s often difficult to see what’s going on. The audio tracks (English or Japanese 5.1) are quite good, with plenty of surrounds and excellent separation. The bass levels are a bit low, but the dialogue co-exists with the other elements nicely.

IIn terms of extras, the disc sports some pretty good supplements. “Re-voicing Steamboy” is just shy of 20 minutes, and gives Paquin, Alfred Molina and Patrick Stewart a chance to talk about their experiences doing voice work. A five-minute interview with Katsuhiro Otomo is also included, which gives him a chance to talk about the origins of the project and so forth. “The Adventure Continues” shows off the end credits sans text, allowing us to see more clearly what the movie’s main characters are up to afterwards. The “Multi-screen Landscape Study” is a nifty little feature that you really have to see to understand (it’s kind of like a storyboard-to-screen comparison, but way cooler).

Finally, we get some animation onion skins, some production drawings, and trailers.

Steamboy, from Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment
126 minutes, anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) 16x9 enhanced, Dolby Digital 5.1 (English & Japanese)
Starring Anna Paquin, Alfred Molina and Patrick Stewart
Produced by Shinji Komori, Hideyuki Tomioka
Screenplay by Sadayuki Murai & Katsuhiro Otomo
Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo


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Updated May 13, 2006