'Speed Racer' Leads Hollywood's Latest Charge: Anime Adaptations

Having snatched up virtually every comic book title to ever hit shelves, Hollywood studios are plumbing new depths in search of a blockbuster genre.

And they think they've found it in anime.

Leading the charge are the nerd kings who grew up on the Asian cartoons, Andy and Larry Wachowski, whose "Speed Racer" arrives in theaters May 9.

"Racer" marks not only a return to the brothers' filmmaking roots; it's the first of several big-budget gambles the industry is taking on a genre that remains unknown to many American moviegoers.

Still, big names are gobbling up titles:

Leonardo DiCaprio will produce two films based on the popular anime story "Akira," set in a rebuilt Tokyo after a mysterious explosion decimated the city. The first of the Warner Bros. films, to be set in "New Manhattan," is scheduled for summer 2009.

Director M. Night Shyamalan will direct "The Last Airbender," an adaptation of the popular Asian-influenced Nickelodeon series about a young hero with the power to manipulate the elements. It's due July 2, 2010.

Steven Spielberg will adapt "Ghost in the Shell," a futuristic crime thriller based on the 1989 Japanese comic, or manga, that spawned a half-dozen films and video games. No release date has been set.

But for now, all eyes are on "Racer," seen by many as a barometer of audiences' appetites for big-screen anime adaptations.

Domestic box office for Japanese anime features has been mixed. While the "Pokémon" franchise has proved appealing to kids, little anime has caught on with broader audiences. According to Box Office Mojo, the highest-grossing anime film geared to older moviegoers is 2002's "Spirited Away," which took in $10.1 million.

That won't cut it when your budget is $120 million, the reported cost of "Racer."

Filmmakers and fans are quick to point out that most of the anime adaptations will be live action — a much easier sell at theaters. And unlike the dark and violent tone of many anime stories, "Racer" is a family-friendly PG.

But they also acknowledge that the genre appeals to a select group. "Generation X is very familiar with anime," says Zac Bertschy, executive editor of the Anime News Network, a website dedicated to the genre. "But if you're not in that age group, there may be a learning curve."

"Racer" won't suffer from a lack of fan familiarity. The question, says Michael Pinto of anime.com, is whether the Wachowskis have the craftsmanship they demonstrated in 1999's "The Matrix," which was partly inspired by "Akira" and "Shell."

"They won over a lot of anime fans with the first one, and disappointed a lot of them with the sequels," Pinto says. "They're obviously fanboys. People want them to regain that touch, because it could open the door for more anime."

Reloading for "Racer"

The brothers have opened doors before. Despite tough reviews for 2003's "Matrix Reloaded" and "Matrix Revolutions," the films made more than $1.6 billion worldwide and redefined the standard of Hollywood special effects.

"There are two scenes in "Reloaded" that people kept talking," says Joel Silver, producer of "Racer" and the "Matrix" trilogy and the Wachowskis' unofficial spokesman.

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