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A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this movie is not for younger kids. It's very violent, with lots of destruction and a father trying to kill his son. It shows a society being transformed by scientific leaps in steam power. You might talk with teens about how electricity and now computers have done the same, and whether some humanity has been lost along the way. You might also take the opportunity to do some research into real-life wonders of the Great Exhibition, like the Crystal Palace.
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What's the story?
Set in 1866 in England, STEAMBOY centers on Ray Steam (voiced by Anna Paquin), the resourceful teen son in a family of inventors, but he hasn't seen his father Edward (voiced by Alfred Molina) or his grandfather Lloyd (voiced by Patrick Stewart) since they left to invent the Steam Ball, a small metal sphere of ultra-compressed liquid so mighty it could run a city. The Steam Ball arrives in the mail and Ray is told to protect it no matter what. Right away, a gang tries to take the Steam Ball. They're allied with Edward Steam, who was badly wounded in a lab accident but has rebuilt himself as a sort of cyborg. The same mishap has left Ray's grandfather Lloyd wildly opposed to technology, and the raving old man gets locked in the bowels of the Steam Castle, the family's fortress-style display at London's Great Exhibition that needs the Steam Ball to work. Ray is torn between his grandfather, who tries to sabotage the Steam Castle at every opportunity and his father, who wants to create more and more machines. The Steam Castle is a showcase for new weapons, offered for sale to the nations of the world. Edward thinks this is a good thing; Lloyd does not, and neither do the authorities and rival inventors, who launch an attack. London turns into a battleground and each side unleashes wilder and wilder engines of destruction (throughout, however, human casualties remain extremely low).
Is it any good?
Reportedly the most expensive Japanese-animated cartoon yet made, Steamboy takes place in Charles Dickens' time but is as full of incredible gadgets as any science-fiction epic. This retro-futurist Victorian action movie is like Jules Verne on steroids, with wondrous Industrial-Revolution machinery grown to Tokyo-stomping heights and visually realized by star animator Katsuhiro Otomo. His sci-fi epic Akira, back in 1989, opened the floodgates for Japanese animation in US theaters. Earlier it had been restricted to home-video imports, syndicated TV, and bootlegs. Akira's sprawling cityscapes and intrigues deserved the biggest screens it could get. But Akira was also dark, violent, and pessimistic.
Steamboy is similarly visionary but a little more family-friendly. It's a pretty noisy spectacle, but you can lose yourself in Otomo's sumptuous designs, cathedrals of gears, cogs, screws, flywheels, and pulleys. And this is a too-rare case in movie science-fiction where the special effects make a viewer think, about the onslaught of technology, about where human progress is going, and where it's been.