Asia's 'Astro Boy' set to take on Hollywood

(AFP)

When a feisty little robot named "Astro Boy" emerged from the Japanese comic world in the 1960s, children across the globe were charmed by his charisma and inspired by his courage.

The cartoon character used super powers to fight all manner of evil, from man-hating robots to robot-hating men, but nothing could have prepared him for the battle he now faces: "Astro Boy" is about to take on Hollywood.

The Hong Kong-based animation studio Imagi on Saturday launches its modern 3D take on the "Astro Boy" story in Japanese cinemas before it goes out in the US from October 23, right in the middle of the lucrative autumn cinema season.

Imagi's studio heads are gambling that their 65 million dollar production will steal a share of the animation market dominated by the American super studios of Pixar and DreamWorks -- and inspire a new wave of Asian-based animation.

"Astro Boy shows the potential and the promise in the Asian animation industry and the possibilities that are here," says Imagi's vice-president of animation, Tim Cheung.

"Talent is always around, the important thing is how it is developed. And that is what you are seeing now -- the talent is being developed in Asia."

First sketched by Osamu Tezuka in 1956, "Astro Boy" became an instant classic of the Japanese-invented manga-style comics with its tale of a powerful little robot boy built by a scientist in the image of his deceased son.

There have been a number of version of the story produced since, most famously the 1960s series which heralded the rise of the influential Japanese "anime" style of cartoons used in television and film.

Without giving too much away, Imagi say they have taken the traditional story -- which saw Astro Boy abandoned to a circus and then reborn as a superhero -- and updated it not only with modern 3-D CGI technology but with modern themes.

For their English-language version, Freddie Highmore ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") and Oscar-winner Nicolas Cage will provide the voices for the lead roles -- Astro Boy and Dr Tenma, the scientist who builds the robot.

"It's always tricky to ask a filmmaker about their production but I feel hugely confident," says Cheung. "It's very well balanced throughout. It's rare to have movie like this where so many moments in the film are touching.

"Plus it has action and humour. And all that is enshrined in the story of Astro Boy -- it has always had all that.

"It will be fairly new for the North American audience, but very familiar for the Asian audience."

Imagi has grand plans for an Asian animation market that is looking to go global.

Three of the worldwide box office's top 10 hits this year have been CGI-animated films -- with "Up" coming in third so far (with 292 million dollars in ticket sales), "Monsters vs Aliens" at sixth and "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" seventh.

But until now, Asian animators have been content to target their own regional markets.

Japan's legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki won an Oscar in 2003 for "Spirited Away", and he has a cult following across the globe. But Miyazaki remains the exception.

There is good reason, says Kim Ji-Seok, who programmes the Asian sections at South Korea's annual Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF), the biggest in the region.

"The status of the feature animation film in Asia, except for Japan, has been poor," says Kim.

"Some Asian countries, however, have tried to promote the animation industry on a national level.

"It seems to me that animated feature film production in Asia is slowly materializing, in places such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Philippines where it was difficult to make feature animation films before."

This year's PIFF -- which is running until October 16 -- features a special "Ani Asia! A Leap of Asian Feature Animation" section that features films from those smaller Asian markets.

"What these animated features provide is a kind of refreshment," says Kim. "They can be distinguished from conventional animation from the West or Japan, and the characters and stories are aesthetically combined with each country's cultural traditions."

Kim says the region's comic traditions have long inspired filmmakers, a point reinforced last month when America's Vanquish Motion Pictures picked up the rights to "DevaShard", the best-selling graphic novel series from Hong Kong.

"DevaShard" is based on ancient Sanskrit epics such as "The Mahabharata" and so far its two issues have sold out print runs of 50,000 in its home town.

Imagi is also at work on their next feature, an updated version of the Japanese anime series "Gatchaman", which follows the exploits of a five-member team of superheroes and first appeared in the 1970s. The film is set for release towards the end of 2010.

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