Leading manga and Japanimation writer-helmer Katsuhiro Otomo charcoal-filters his ambivalent attitude toward technology through a complex sci-fi plot set in Victorian England, where steam power has quasi-nuke destructive potential. Pic is being touted as most expensive anime movie ever, and budget shows in every intricate, painstakingly designed frame. The diaspora of anime buffs who revere helmer will ensure healthy opening figures as a niche release. However, dry storytelling and boy’s-toys mechanics will stop this from being the next “Spirited Away”-style crossover hit.
In Manchester in 1866, young factory-assistant Ray is the son of Eddie Steam, a scientist abroad working with his father, Lloyd Steam. Grandpa Lloyd sends Ray a mysterious ball in the mail that nefarious agents from the shadowy O’Hara Foundation try to seize. Ray escapes on a one-wheel contraption of his own devising (first of pic’s many groovy gizmos), but is captured and whisked by zeppelin to the O’Hara Foundation’s pavilion at the not-yet-opened Great Exhibition in London.
Eventually it is revealed that the strange ball is a type of engine using compressed steam of “unbelievable power” invented by Lloyd. Several of these balls run the O’Hara pavilion, which later reveals itself to be an immense, mobile fortress. Deep inside its bowels, Ray discovers both his dad Eddie, who has fallen under the sway of O’Hara, and Grandpa Lloyd who, fearing O’Hara wishes to harness the steam balls’ power for evil ends, is trying to foil their plans.
Gramp’s suspicions look to be on the money when the O’Hara faction hijacks the opening of the Great Exhibition to turn it into an armament show for potential buyers from nations around the world. Otomo also works in a chaste love interest for Ray in the form of a spoiled little rich girl named, of all things, Scarlett O’Hara, but her role seems a merely cursory concession to young femme auds.
Pic’s implicit ideology is consistent with the helmer’s pacifist and techno-skeptic principles as displayed in his feature “Akira,” short “Cannon Fodder” (in portmanteau pic “Memories”), and the story he penned for Hiroyuki Kitakubo’s “Rojin Z.”
But Otomo is a Socratic instructor, leaving the aud to make its own mind up like Ray, torn between his dad and his granddad’s equally persuasive arguments. Younger viewers may start squirming with boredom during the heavier debates, but there’s always another cool piston-powered machine on the way. As a writer, Otomo may fear how technology is used by those in power, but as an artist, he sure loves a good gadget.
Animation is aces, further pushing the possibilities of blending computer-generated 3-D technology with traditional 2-D design. Palette takes its cue from sepia tones of old photographs, washing out the colors and recreating the drab, milky light of British weather very effectively. Character design is a bit conventional compared with the lavish backgrounds.