Imagi hitches rocket to 'Astro Boy'

Success of animated film could give house new life, sequel

BUSAN -- “Astro Boy II” could soon be in the works if all goes well with this week’s release of the animated superhero movie “Astro Boy.” That would also spell a new lease on life for its production house Imagi and could redefine the concept of co-production in Asia.
The fully CGI-animated movie about a heroic boy robot is based on a 1956 manga and the 1964 Japanese anime series “Tetsuwan Atom: Uchu No Yusha.” It boasts an American director, David Bowers, and was made at Imagi’s production “pipeline” in Hong Kong on a budget of some $65 million. Last month it was also accepted by China's Film Bureau as an official Chinese co-production making it eligible for import outside the quotas and open to release in China as a local film.
The pic was released this week in Hong Kong and Saturday in Japan. Over the next fortnight it will roll out across much of the Asia-Pacific region. The China debut is set for Oct. 23, the same day as it begins a wide release through Summit Entertainment in North America.
Initial reactions from the Tokyo premiere Monday suggest that the careful modernization of the Atom character has kept the film true to the original concept and acceptable to the millions of Japanese who watched the TV series. Meanwhile, for Americans and international audiences beyond Asia, the film appears to be American, or at least fashioned in the same way as a Pixar original. That’s because Imagi’s unique modus operandi is to hire former Disney and DreamWorks Animation creatives in the U.S. who originate the script and storyboard before turning it over to the company’s 500 multi-cultural animators in Hong Kong.
“Astro Boy” boasts Freddie Highmore as the boy robot and Nicolas Cage leading an all-star adult voice cast that also includes Samuel L. Jackson, Charlize Theron and Bill Nighy. Fast food-giant McDonald’s also boarded as a marketing partner when Summit committed to give it a 3,000-screen release.
Like many superhero tales, “Astro Boy” could end up bringing new life to a floundering parent.
Imagi enjoyed a U.S. No. 1 slot with 2007’s “TMNT” but flirted with disaster over the two following years. First, a studio-level distribution deal collapsed. Then would-be corporate investors backed out, forcing accountants to warn that the company did not have enough money to deliver “Astro Boy” and “Gatchaman,” an all 3-D cartoon that is the next picture on Imagi’s slate.
Channeling their money through Hong Kong’s Winnington investment house, new backers from China succeeded in arranging a $25 million bank loan, launching a $12 million rights issue and a $13 million placing.
En route, Imagi dropped “Tusker,” an elephant tale that it had plucked from turnaround at DreamWorks, and is now focused on the search for a hero concept of Chinese origin. Plans are afoot for the Hong Kong pipeline to deliver one film per year on the scale of “TMNT” and “Astro Boy,” and for the company to also set up a second production facility on the Chinese mainland.