Thursday, November 30, 2006

Now Playing: Steamboy

The steampunk genre is an odd one to speak off. Either you get and love the idea of steam powered engines and magics in Victorian times or you toss it aside as poppycock. Rarely have I seen anything in between. So when I threw Steamboy into the queue I knew exactly what I was getting. What I didn't know or expect was just how much I would love it.

The film kicks off in the Artic circle where a team of explorers lead by an over-the-top old man and his son are hard at work trying to harness steam power. When their experiment goes wrong, the scene fades to black and we wind up in Manchester, England, sometime in the late 1800s. The world has changed and both Britain and America are neck-deep in the Industrial Revolution. Environmentalists who complain and moan about how poorly the current generation treats our atmosphere and oceans should collectively look back 100 years to see what happens when no regulations exist whatsoever.

Steamboy, to its credit, never once appears as though the film makers are standing on a soapbox moralizing to the audience about how wrong it is for industry to do what it does in service of pure profit. Nor does it speak out about how much better nature is when left alone rather than used to benefit man. Those elements are certainly there, don't misunderstand me, just as they are in most anime films. But the story is so well told and entertaining in its own right that the "messages" are simply shown rather than hammered into us (I'm looking at you Princess Mononokee).

The story picks up in Manchester and follows young Ray Steam, son and grandson of those guys in the Artic, who is a natural born inventor. He picked up the family gene for technology and can play with something and have it working better in no time flat. When he receives a package from his grandfather at the same time some mysterious men from a shadowy "institute" knock on his front door, the film becomes a literal race to the finish. One bravura action sequence after another follows and as character after character are introduced and the film makers throw marvel after marvel at the screen it takes your breath away.

One of the most annoying characters in the early going actually wound up being one of my favorites by the end. Ray's female equivalent is introduced early on as Miss Scarlett and she's a spoiled American heir to the "institute." She grates at first, but as things explode in the second half of the film her eyes are gradually opened as to what it is her company does. Her relationship with Ray results in some laugh out loud moments, particularly when she can't figure out why he as a boy won't willingly dance with her. It simply baffles her and I was rolling at her reactions.

Another thing Steamboy has going for it is the sense of humor. Far too often anime are weighed down under the combined mass of their "message" along with the sense of self-importance. Steamboy, on the other hand, has several gut laughs in store including the hilarious capper to a deadly serious monologue late in the film. I also was holding my sides at a big "reveal" of the true nature of something at the end, and it's to the film makers' credit that they never went for the cheap laugh at a moment of seriousness. The timing of the jokes is killer, and the quality of the jokes is equally killer.

Steamboy has tons of inventiveness going for it and the details alone in the various applications of steam-powered technologies demands repeat viewings. Steamboy is worth watching a second time not only for the world and its gadgets, but also for the humanity present in its main characters. It would be great to see additional stories in this universe in the future, but only time will tell whether we see the further adventures of Ray Steam and family.

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