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Steamboy & Memories
reviewed by Donald Melanson

September 20, 2005 | Steamboy was one of the most anticipated anime films in recent memory — it was, after all, the first feature film by Katsuhiro Otomo since his legendary Akira (1988). But as with many other wildly anticipated follow-ups, it's nearly impossible to live up to everyone's expectations, and Steamboy is a bit of a letdown when compared to Otomo's previous work. But if you can forget that movie for a minute (I know, not an easy thing), Steamboy is still quite a good film, although one with its fair share of faults.

In a marked departure from Otomo's prior work, Steamboy is set in Victorian England and centers on a young boy, Ray, who's father and grandfather have made significant advances in steam technology (and also happened to be named "Steam") and are now at odds over how the technology should be used — intrigue and adventure ensue.

The animation, as you'd expect, is superb, creating a rich and detailed world that Jules Verne would be proud of. Unfortunately, it's the narrative and the characters where the film falls short. This is the same complaint many critics had with the hacked-up theatrical release — I can't comment on that version since I haven't seen it, but judging from the complete director's cut on this DVD, it appears the film has some deeper problems than simply bad editing.

The broad strokes are there, with the conflict over the course of technological progress embodied in Ray's father and grandfather, but the plot seems to serve more as an excuse for big action sequences than for examining big ideas.

Sony Pictures has released Steamboy on DVD in a couple of different versions, including a regular single disc release, a deluxe gift set, and as a double feature with the wonderful anime Memories. Unless you're big on collectable sets, the last one is definitely the way to go.

Memories is a collection of three shorts based on stories by Katsuhiro Otomo including "Magnetic Rose" directed by Koji Morimoto, "Stink Bomb" directed by Tensai Okamura, and "Cannon Fodder" directed by Otomo himself. Of the three, "Magnetic Rose" is far and away my favorite, a thoughtful work of science fiction in the tradition of Solaris and 2001.

The Steamboy DVD itself is the same in all three editions, with a nice looking transfer and both English and Japanese language tracks in 5.1 DD surround. Compared to most dubs, the English track is actually pretty decent, featuring performances by Anna Paquin, Alfred Molina and Patrick Stewart. It also feautres quite a bit more dialogue than the subtitles, and the British accents do fit the setting, although anime purists will likely want to stick with the original audio. Extras are otherwise a bit lightweight, with a featurette on "re-voicing Steamboy", an interview with Otomo, and various features showcasing the film's artwork and animation.

Donald Melanson is the editor-in-chief of Mindjack and a freelance writer for hire. In addition to Mindjack, his work has appeared in The Globe & Mail, Engadget, and MovieMaker Magazine.

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