The Human Side
October 19, 2009

The Human Side

A behind-the-scenes look at the humans involved in the making of Astro Boy

The Human Side

At the age of 17, Freddie Highmore has a resume any actor would envy, but Astro Boy is his first foray into superhero status. Working on the film was an education for Highmore, who was not initially familiar with the character. “It was exciting to learn about this whole new world,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like we know this huge secret, and we’re about to go and tell all these people about it.”

Highmore voices both Toby and Astro Boy in the movie, giving him the additional challenge of creating two similar, but distinct, characters. “It was really interesting to play,” he says. “They are quite different. Toby is, like most of the humans, quite dismissive of robots and, of course, Astro Boy is a robot.”
 “All great characters change through the course of a movie,” he notes. “Astro Boy definitely learns many things about himself and about how to live in the world. He realizes that he has all these amazing powers. As he discovers his powers, the audience discovers them as well and hopefully they go through the emotions with him.”

Astro Boy’s longing to be accepted is central to the character, says Highmore. “That’s his real quest. The film has the action theme running through it, but there’s so much more.  It’s also incredibly funny. There’s real, deep emotion. It’s the sort of film kids can take their parents or parents can take their kids and everyone will have a good time.”

One of the things that attracted Highmore to the project was its innovative approach to animation. “It’s quite original and it’s got a modern feel to it,” he says. “They kept some of the traditions of manga, but altered them slightly. Everyone has their own image of Astro Boy and so nothing is going to be exactly like the manga or exactly like the TV show, but the original core of the characters is still there. It is definitely something new, but fans will be able to recognize the old faces and see the characters come to life in a different way.

It’s definitely not necessary to be a dyed-in-wool Astro Boy fan to enjoy the movie, however, says Highmore. “It stands on its own as a film. You can go and see it without any knowledge or go and see it knowing a lot about the character. It’s really entertaining either way.”

Dr. Tenma

Nicolas Cage, who voices Dr. Tenma, Astro Boy’s father, says he grew up watching the original black and white “Astro Boy” television series. “There was a tremendous amount of emotion in those Japanese cartoons,” he remembers. “I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. There was this marvelous charm in seeing somebody that small be that powerful. I think that’s something that a lot of children can get in step with.” 

Cage once hoped to make a live-action feature based on the character. “It wasn’t something that ever got off the ground,” he says. “But Mr. Tezuka sent me a little wooden clock with all his characters carved into it. Even though I never met the man, I feel a personal connection to him, which was part of the reason I chose to participate in this movie.”

The key to Astro Boy’s popularity, says Cage, is his inherent humanity. “I love Astro Boy’s good-heartedness, his wanting to belong, wanting to be loved, even though he’s this little robot. You can’t help but adore the character, because you feel so much for him. Those things separate Astro from other anime.”
Cage also has compassion for the character he plays, although Tenma initially rejects his creation. “Dr. Tenma is a tragic character. He has lost his child and he thinks he can use his knowledge of robotics to bring Toby back. Instead, it becomes painful for him to look at Astro Boy, who looks just like Toby, but will never be him. It makes for an additional layer of complexity, because it gives Tenma and Astro Boy a place to go in terms of healing the relationship.”

He acknowledges a sense of obligation to make a movie that lives up to the original “Astro Boy.” “I think everybody involved has a feeling of responsibility for it,” he explains. “We want it to be a moving experience, because we are connected to the material. My hope is that audiences receive this movie in the way they did earlier classics like Pinocchio or The Iron Giant. Those movies are fun to watch, but they also bring so much emotion with them. Astro Boy tries to do more than to just wow you with special effects. It tries to get you to feel something on the most poetic and sublime levels.”


Kristen Bell, who voices Cora, a young runaway from Metro City with a thorny exterior, says being in a movie with a cast that includes Nicolas Cage, Nathan Lane and Bill Nighy is a dream come true for her. “The film is going to be wildly entertaining and really heartwarming,” she says. “The images are so beautiful. There’s a lot of heart behind this movie because there’s a lot of heart behind this little boy. Everything has gone wrong for him and you really root for him because you know that he’s true to himself.”

“When I was growing up, I secretly wanted to be in a cartoon musical,” she reveals. “I didn’t get to sing as Cora, but this ended up being such a wonderful experience. For me, it was all new and exciting. It was really fun to see the whole process. First it was just the pencil sketches and then the pencil sketches started to move. Then you saw a little bit of color and bold lines, and it kept getting better. Each time I went in to record, I saw new sequences cut together and, thought, oh, wow, we’re really making a great movie!”

Bell saw a number of parallels between Astro Boy’s underlying themes and major issues facing society today. “What you walk away with depends on what’s important to you,” says the actress. “One of the things I liked in the script was the whole idea that robots are second-class citizens and they shouldn’t be looked at like they have feelings or rights. People who fight for equality will recognize the robots versus human aspect. People who care about the environment will recognize the need to cherish this world and clean it up a little bit, before it’s too late.” 

The actress says she found much of what she needed to create her character on the page, but also put a lot of herself into the role. “I loved Cora’s attitude and her sarcasm and her ability to be witty,” Bell says. “At the same time, she takes good care of the kids that she lives with. She’s really tough, but she would never betray them or want to be betrayed by them. She gets her sense of family from those kids. She is like the group’s den mother.”

Bell says she understands Cora’s reluctance to accept Astro Boy once she finds out he is a robot. “She’s sympathetic to the robot’s plight and children especially will identify with him. It’s an important thing to talk about. Everybody wants to be accepted. The story is about embracing who you really are and letting the world know.”


Tony winner Nathan Lane plays Hamegg, an earth-side entrepreneur that Lane compares to Fagin in Oliver Twist. “He employs all of these children to help him run his business, which is pitching gladiator-style combat between robots. Hamegg uses them to find robots and robot parts for him.
 “It’s a good story, a classic story and I think people will have a great time watching it,” says Lane. “The artwork is very impressive and true to the original, and at the same time very high-tech and new. They have created a world that seems very real. Astro Boy is solid family entertainment.”  

Dr. Elefun, Robotsky

Actor Bill Nighy admits to being very impressed by the international phenomenon surrounding Astro Boy. “He is so beloved in Japan,” Nighy marvels. ”There are statues of him, as well as whole stores devoted to Astro Boy. Not only is he exciting as an adventure character, but he’s also terribly chic. I love the whole experience of Astro Boy.”

Nighy is a prolific actor whose many memorable roles have included debauched glam rocker Billy Mack in Love Actually and Viktor, the vampire king, in the Underworld franchise. He plays two characters in Astro Boy: Dr. Elefun, a scientist and colleague of Tenma, and Robotsky, a rebel robot. He signed on knowing that David Bowers, who directed him in Flushed Away, was helming the project. “I was reassured that I was in safe hands.”

About his characters, Nighy says, “Dr. Elefun is the conscience of the movie. He’s the man that they should all listen to and don’t. He is also Astro Boy’s best friend, and the good spirit within the movie. On the audience’s behalf, he counsels well and in good faith, while up against enormous odds.”
“Robotsky looks a bit like a filing cabinet on legs,” he continues. “He is part of the Robot Revolutionary Front (RRF), a collection of good-hearted idiots with a reasonably good excuse to make noise. They want robots to have the same rights that humans enjoy and to be set free to wander in the world. Robotsky has one role with the RRF and one role only—muscle. He’s not overly bright, he is good-hearted and he is quite strong.”

Playing two characters meant coming up with two distinct voices for Nighy. “The process that David Bowers and I employ is that I come in with some inappropriate and appalling ideas and then he rehabilitates me and allows me to do it properly,” says Nighy, a distinguished theater actor whose other film credits include Pirates of the Caribbean’s Davy Jones. “I had a series of ideas for Dr. Elefun that I thought were funny. When David recovered from that, he asked me if I could do it as myself more or less, and do it with some dignity. Robotsky had to be very different from Dr. Elefun and his voice needed to indicate that he is not perhaps the full ticket upstairs, as it were.”

For Nighy, the strength of the film lies in the audience’s identification with the leading character. “It’s an action movie, but it’s an action movie with heart and comedy,” he says. “I love the idea that Astro Boy is a robot so beautifully designed that he approaches humanity. It addresses questions of finding out who you are and how to deal with the fact of yourself.” 

Nighy states, “It has everything an audience likes. It’s funny, it’s exciting, and it concerns itself with things that are in all of our lives. It’s dramatized beautifully and the whole idea is very powerful, but also very witty.”  

Other Cast Members

As Orrin, a robot working in Dr. Tenma’s household, Bowers cast Eugene Levy. “Orrin’s kind of a nervous type,” says Levy. ”And robots in Metro City are a kind of appliance and they’re treated the way you would treat a toaster or an oven.”   
Levy has lent his voice to animated films including Over the Hedge and Curious George. He says that he enjoys doing voice work in part because it brings him back to his professional beginnings in Toronto. “When I started acting, there was a lot of radio commercial work being done and that’s how actors made a reasonably good living.”

Although Levy’s distinctive voice has become something of a calling card for him, he says he has never viewed it as a strength. “There have been times when I wished I had a voice like Christopher Plummer, deep and resonant. But ultimately, it is up to the brain trust that put this thing together to hear it. An actor has to give them a range of options for line readings and stay totally flexible. It’s a great exercise and it can really be a challenge.” 

When Levy was first approached to do Astro Boy, the filmmakers sent him a meticulously assembled binder of characters and illustrations. “When I looked through this amazing book, I saw images that were spectacular and characters that looked quite endearing. It was very impressive. In the finished product, the animation is just as incredible, but it’s the emotional current that runs through this very impressive-looking work that becomes very moving.” 

That presentation also impressed two-time Golden Globe winner Donald Sutherland, who plays President Stone. “It was so compelling,” he says. “Then I saw the realized footage. It was absolutely thrilling and everything that I imagined. In fact, it was way beyond what I imagined. The look of it, the energy of it, the joy of it, the sincerity of soul is extraordinary. It’s a monumental work.”

The process of voicing an animated character doesn’t differ greatly from acting on camera, he says. “It is creating the character and then coming into a recording studio and voicing him. The character and his reality are there. When I come into the studio, I like to imagine I’m a singer like Peggy Lee or Anita O’Dea.”  
Sutherland owns up to having a statue of Astro Boy in his house. “He’s perfect,” says Sutherland. “He has honor and a heart of gold. He’s smart and innocent and exquisitely loveable. What more could you ask for?” 

British comedian Matt Lucas provided the voice of Sparx, leader of the Robot Revolutionary Front. “He’s actually the self-appointed leader,” says Lucas. “Sparx is a very intense and intelligent robot. He’s just not quite as intelligent as he thinks he is, which makes him good fun to play. The writer gave him some truly funny lines and I was given a bit of free rein as well to improvise.”

For the voice, Lucas harked back to classic British sitcom stars like Leonard Rossitter. “He is best known in the U.S. for his work on ‘Rising Damp’ and ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin,’” says Lucas. “I tried to incorporate some of his vocal tics into the performance.”

The actor says it was flattering to be included in such a distinguished cast—although he has yet to meet any of them. “I’m afraid that at the premiere, I’ll say, ‘Hello! How are you?, and they’ll say, ‘You’re being a bit over-familiar. If you stay behind the barrier, please, I’ll sign an autograph for you.’”

While Lucas says Astro Boy will be a treat for longtime fans of anime, it is also a perfect entry point for people who haven’t yet discovered the art form. “The visuals are brilliantly realized. David has taken the best of what exists and put a new contemporary twist on it.”
“Astro Boy’s a great role model for young people today,” Lucas observes. “He’s a lovely character, he’s got a good heart and he has a fabulous work ethic. He’s a mensch.”