When is a rough-and-tumble boxing movie about giant metal beasts pulverizing each other not a rough-and-tumble boxing movie about giant metal beasts pulverizing each other? When it’s a family-friendly movie about a dad and his estranged son reconnecting after a decade apart, of course.

My first clue should have been the ‘Directed by Shawn Levy’ bit during the opening credits. The man who made the goofy, kid-fun pics Night at the Museum and Cheaper By the Dozen obviously wasn’t going to turn into Michael Mann or Ridley Scott overnight, so (despite the slam-bang, metal-crunch trailer) Real Steel was obviously going to lean a little more to the kinder, gentler side.

Sure enough, but for one mildly hairy (for kids, anyway) ‘payback’ scene, Real Steel could have easily been PG.

And once that was cleared up, it was easy to just sit back and enjoy the movie for what it is– Paper Moon without anyone dying, Rocky with Robots, and a live-action The Iron Giant.

Set an undetermined number of years in the future (15-ish… possibly), Real Steel occupies a world where boxing is still alive and well, only now the fights are contested by 10-foot tall metal robots instead of people. Charlie (Hugh Jackman) is a former (human) boxer now manning the control for a robot boxer. Trouble is, he’s in debt to just about all of humanity, and he’s not very good at what he does.

When he gets news that his estranged son Max’s mother has passed away (Charlie hit the road when Max was born), he greets it with rolled eyes and a fervent hope that somehow he can make some money from the situation. It turns out that Max’s rich aunt wants to adopt him but has to wait a few months until returning from a planned summer sojourn to Italy. Charlie extorts $100K from her husband, takes the kid for the summer, and gets back to the business of boxing.

Along the way, of course, father and son bond, father learns a life lesson about what’s really important, and their scrappy robot, well… you can guess what becomes of him.

The truth is, though, despite how derivative it is, Real Steel still manages to entertain. It pumps out a surprising amount of heart, a few solid laugh-out-loud moments, and some better-than-expected robot fight scenes. (Picture Michael Bay’s Transformers in a fistfight, and you’d be in the right ballpark).

Jackman and newcomer Dakota Goyo anchor the film as father and son, sharing a nice bit of chemistry, and Lost fans will never realize how fun and happy Evangeline Lilly can be until you see her here as Charlie’s flame.

Adults may find the (apparent) anachronisms a bit puzzling; according to the movie, the only things that change in the next 15 years are a few computers (clothing, cars, and buildings all look the same) but otherwise Real Steel does what it sets out to do, and I’ll be darned if you don’t find yourself cheering along.

3.5/5 stars