It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Steamboy" is a noisy, eventful and unsuccessful venture into Victorian-era science fiction, animated by a modern Japanese master. It's like H. G. Wells and Jules Verne meet "Akira." The story follows three generations of a British family involved in a technological breakthrough involving steam, which the movie considers the 19th-century equivalent of nuclear power. There may be possibilities here, but they're lost in the extraordinary boredom of a long third act devoted almost entirely to loud, pointless and repetitive action.
The movie opens in 1866 with the collection of water from an ice cave; its extraordinary purity is necessary for experiments by the Steam family, which is perfecting the storage of power through steam under high pressures. Young Ray Steam (voice by Anna Paquin) is the boy hero, whose father Eddie (Alfred Molina) and grandfather Lord Steam (Patrick Stewart) are rivals in the development of the technology. One day Ray gets a package in the mail from his grandfather, its delivery followed immediately by ominous men dressed in alarming dark Victorian fashions that proclaim, "I am a sinister villain."
The box contains a steam ball, which we learn contains steam under extraordinary pressure. The ball, invented by Lloyd, is either a revolutionary power source or an infernal device that could explode at any moment, take your choice. Ray tries to escape on a peculiar invention that seems to combine the most uncomfortable experiences of riding a unicycle and being trapped in a washing machine, but is captured and taken to the headquarters of the O'Hara Foundation, which wants to control the invention and use it to power new machines of war. It goes without saying, or does it, that the O'Hara family daughter is named Scarlett.
The movie is the result of 10 years of labor by Katsuhiro Otomo, whose "Akira" (1988) was the first example of Japanese anime to break through to world theatrical markets. That one created a futuristic Tokyo where a military dictatorship cannot control rampaging motorcycle gangs. The animation was state of the art, the vision was bleak, the tone was a radical departure for American audiences raised to equate animation with cute animals and fairy tales.