March 5, 2006 -- “Steamboy” is an overlong Japanese animated story set in an alternate universe London around 1851. A family of inventors named Steam has invented a super-dense form of steam which can power all sorts of fantastic contraptions, including flying fortresses.
James Ray Steam (voice by Anna Paquin in the English dubbed version) mysteriously comes into possession of his grandfather's invention, a small globe of super high pressure steam. He is immediately pursued by two factions intent on possessing and using the new form of power for their own purposes, which, of course, include megalomaniacal fantasies. The boy is torn between his father, Dr. Eddie Steam (voice by Alfred Molina in the English dubbed version) and grandfather, Dr. Lloyd Steam (voice by Patrick Stewart in the English version) who have radically differing agendas and views of science.
On one side you have science without morality in the service of power-hungry politicians and capitalists. On another side is a scientist who sees science as a means to make the lives of people better. Ray himself is also a scientist and inventor who pursues science for the thrill of discovery and the satisfaction of problem-solving. A naive, obnoxious young girl is also a major part of the story. The insufferable, clueless young girl is the heir to the O'Hara Foundation which funds the steam experiments. The O'Hara Foundation is also a major international arms dealer.
As is typical in Japanese animation. The difference between the good guys and the bad guys is blurred. It is very tough for Ray to figure out who to trust in this high-stakes power struggle. Also typical is the plot device of the ultimate weapon (a thinly disguised metaphor for the atomic bomb). In this story, that weapon is called a steam castle. In the Japanese animated feature “Metropolis” the ultimate weapon was called a Ziggurat. Both the steam castle and Ziggurat are pretty much the same thing, a great big all-powerful Rube Goldberg device of the type that gets megalomaniacs obscenely excited. This is very much like other Japanese animated films I've seen, only more so. The artwork is impressive, but this film just doesn't know when to quit. I thought it was never going to end. It rates a C.
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