Fantasia Festival Report: Tetsujin 28
Here's everything you need to know about the new live action version of Tetsujin 28: less than fifteen minutes after today's screening of the film a Fantasia staffer was walking up the line for Cromartie High School with a stack of tickets a few inches thick for tomorrow's screening, giving them away free to anyone who wanted them. In other words, now that people have seen the film they don't expect to be selling any more tickets.
Tetsujin 28 has already received one excellent, though loose, theatrical adaptation in Brad Bird's classic The Iron Giant. This new version, however, can be classed as nothing other than a major disappointment.
Tetsujin tells the story of Shotaro, a young boy whose father died under mysterious circumstances some years earlier. When a mysterious giant robot named Black Ox arrives in Tokyo, leaving a swath of destruction in its path, Shotaro receives a mysterious phone call summoning him to meet a man from his father's past. It turns out Shotaro's father was a robotics engineer in charge of the Tetsujin project. When he died in a lab accident he left behind the twenty eighth and final Tetsujin robot, a metal behemoth that has been slowly gathering dust. Shotaro must awaken Tetsujin from his lengthy slumber and pilot him against the powerful Black Ox if humanity is to survive.
The film's weaknesses fall in two major categories: the script and the robots. As for the script, this is a film populated exclusively with wafer thin characters. There is not a single one of them with any emotional heft; they have no strong connections to each other; motivations are seldom explained at all and when the film does try to rationalize its character's behavior it does so so poorly that it requires a bludgeoning of disbelief rather than a simple suspension. As Bird so amply demonstrated there are many, many directions that you can take this material to pin it down emotionally and this film misses them all.
As for the robots there are two main issues. The design itself proves to be a significant issue. While I loved the nostalgia heavy design when I first saw it on the posters and in trailers the end result of those tubby bodies is that they have an extremely limited range of motion. Both are limited to essentially one fighting move, a roundhouse punch, which makes for VERY repetitive and VERY dull action sequences. The big, impressive robot battles are neither big nor impressive. Also at issue is the excessively clean CGI. The film makers here are clearly of the belief that just because CG can create perfectly clean, flawless surfaces that they should do so. What's the problem with that? Well, first of all the robots look horribly out ofplace in the real world settings. Secondly they never react to the world around them at all. You'd think that in the course of two robots pounding on each other that one of them might get a bit dented; pick up a bit of a scuff in the paint job; maybe when they collapse to the earth they'd get, you know, a bit dusty. Nope. Not a bit. Nothing seems to have an effect on them at all, even when the film is clearly telling you that it should and is.
The film's biggest crime, however, is quite simply that it's boring. The pace lags, there's nobody in particular to root for, the villain is bland and largely pointless, and it takes itself far too seriously for its own good. Where's the child-like wonder? The sense of menace? The sense of fun? I sure don't know, because none of those things made it onto the screen.
Tetsujin 28 is a film that I had high hopes for but is sadly destined for deserved obscurity. If you want to see this story done well go for The Iron Giant. Don't bother with this one.