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Originally published Friday, April 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Anime adventure picks up too much steam in the end

The opening scenes of "Steamboy" hold so much promise that you can't help but be disappointed when Katsuhiro Otomo's lavish anime adventure...

Special to The Seattle Times

The opening scenes of "Steamboy" hold so much promise that you can't help but be disappointed when Katsuhiro Otomo's lavish anime adventure turns into a frenzied action epic that leaves you exhausted. "Steamboy" is a tempest in a grand-scale teapot, and you can't stop it from whistling at a fever pitch.

Until it careers into cacophony, however, it's a lot of fun. By setting his ambitious tale in Victorian England, Otomo trades the dystopian sci-fi of his breakthrough 1988 feature "Akira" (the first international anime hit) for a clever overhaul of industrial-age London. He draws inspiration from "The Difference Engine," the 1991 novel by cyberpunk pioneers William Gibson and Bruce Sterling that offered a similar speculation on advanced 19th-century technology.

In Sterling and Gibson's revisionist history, an elitist computer age arrives at the height of the industrial revolution, prompting the rebellion of a Luddite underclass. In Otomo's animated vision, steam technology is analogous to the rise of nuclear power.

Movie review 2.5 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"Steamboy," with the voices of Anna Paquin, Patrick Stewart, Alfred Molina. Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, from a screenplay by Otomo and Sadayuki Murai. 106 minutes (English dubbed version) and 126 minutes (Japanese subtitled version). Rated PG-13 for action violence. Varsity, through Thursday.

A boy named Ray Steam (dubbed in English by Anna Paquin) finds himself in the middle of an ideological battle between his father, Eddy (Alfred Molina), a Darth Vader-like figure bent on creating steam-driven weapons of mass destruction, and his grandfather Lord Steam (Patrick Stewart), a visionary proponent of beneficent steam-powered innovations.

The action revolves around Ray's possession of a coveted steam ball, an ultra-powerful device invented by his grandfather that contains highly pressurized steam generated by "a stable liquid of exceptional purity" found only in Icelandic ice caves.

If you're getting a Jules Verne vibe from all this techno-adventure, that's clearly Otomo's intention. Especially when heavy-cloaked villains swipe the steam ball for nefarious purposes that aren't fully revealed until a climactic showdown involving the Great Exhibition of 1851, a spoiled yet resourceful girl named Scarlett O'Hara (don't ask, just go with it), a gigantic floating "steam castle" and the ultimate fate of the British empire!

For its entire third act, "Steamboy" resorts to so much loud, redundant chaos that nearly all of the movie's initial charm boils off and Otomo's $22 million, 10-years-in-the-making animated epic succumbs to an overdose of mayhem.

Amid all that sound and fury, however, is enough ingenuity to make "Steamboy" worthwhile, despite Otomo's puzzling decision to antiquate the animation's palette with an overlay of pale, sepia-toned dullness. Ironically, this parade of technology (including impressive warships, zeppelins and many other steam-driven wonders) practically begs for the CGI splendor of the current family hit "Robots." Could it be that these extravagant combinations of 2-D and 3-D anime have worn out their aesthetic welcome?

Not necessarily. That question wouldn't even be asked if Otomo had paid more attention to his storytelling and less to his hyperactive obsession with monstrous machinery.

(Note: The Varsity is playing the 126-minute Japanese subtitled version of "Steamboy" at all late shows today through Thursday; it contains "philosophical dialogue" and some introductory scenes not included in the 106-minute English dubbed version playing at all other showtimes.)

Jeff Shannon:

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