After revolutionising Anime in 1988 with Akira, director Katsuhiro Otomo has now turned his attentions to Victorian England in his latest animation feature. Manchester schoolboy Ray Steam (voiced by Anna Paquin, X-Men‘s Rogue) is given a mysterious steam ball by his wild-eyed and white-haired inventor grandfather Lloyd (Patrick Stewart), and warned to guard it with his life. Lloyd also breaks the news to the young lad that his scientist father Dr Eddie Steam has died while working on an experiment. Promptly after this dire news, Ray is chased across Manchester’s countryside by delegates from the weapon-building O’Hara Foundation who covet the steam ball’s immense industrial power.
The steamball—one of three, of which the company already hold the other two—is a hybrid invention that combines extreme density and extreme pressure, and the three steamballs together are capable of easily powering an entire nation. Thus, the weapon-inventing, building and supplying O’Hara foundation has much to gain from capturing this boy and his inheritance. In a visually stunning and suspenseful scene, Ray attempts to transfer the steamball to government official Robert Stevens, who is riding down to London on the train. As Ray follows alongside Steven’s carriage, propelled by his own invention—an early protoype of a motorbike—the Foundation’s men arrive on a Heath Robinson-esque mind-boggling air machine that looms high and large over the train. The animation flows effortlessly, the battle of the machines is breathtaking, and the scene whips by at breakneck pace. Soon after, Ray and the steamball are kidnapped by the Foundation and taken to London.
At the Foundation’s London headquarters – a giant cylindrical steam castle floating over the Thames – Ray discovers his estranged father (voiced by Alfred Molina, Dr Octopus of Spider Man 2 ). It turns out that rumours of his death have been greatly exaggerated, and that Eddie has instead fallen out with his father Lloyd over their joint creation of the steam balls, and is now working for the Foundation. Lloyd soon arrives to help out Ray, and refuses to apologise for saying Ray’s father has died, for “when a man crosses the line into pure evil, then he’s as good as dead”. This is followed through in Eddie’s visual appearance. Due to a horrendous industrial accident, he has become part man and machine and is transformed almost beyond his son’s recognition. The meeting of the evil half-robotic father and innocent moralistic son results in a full-on Return of the Jedi moment, as Ray is torn between serving his persuasive but demented father and the Foundation, and handing over the steam ball to the English government who have equally dubious and warring intentions.
Costing around $20 million to produce and with a total ten years in the making, Steamboy is one of the most expensive Japanese animations of all time and consequently is beautiful to look at. Disappointingly though, the visuals are badly let down by a poorly organised narrative and—aside from the three leads described above—weak vocal characterisation. The Northern accents in the first part of the film are unconvincing, the various locations are not clearly demarcated, and the final act is utterly confusing.
Additionally, many things occur in Steamboy which appear to make no sense and add nothing to the plot. The head of the O’Hara foundation has a young American daughter called Scarlett, but there seems to be no reason why there should be any Gone with the Wind references, and when Ray’s grandfather Lloyd appears in London to battle his evil son Eddie, he spends his time capering around almost naked, clad only in torn-up shorts and with his bony old chest on permanent display. The saving grace is that Lloyd is voiced by Patrick Stewart, who confers an air of Jean-Luc Picard dignity on the proceedings, and both Paquin and Molina turn in strong vocal performances. Despite all the film’s evident problems, Steamboy’s action set-pieces are so exciting and intense, and the animation so fluid, that, in the end, you may well forgive the film its structural flaws and succumb entirely to Otomo’s stunning steam-powered world.