'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.

"One is when the camera seems to fly through this impossibly small space beneath a truck," he says. "The other is when Trinity (played by Carrie-Anne Moss) is speeding the wrong way down the highway and missing cars by inches. Nobody had seen computer effects like that before, and the brothers wanted to do an entire movie that way."

And they did, essentially dropping actors into a computer-generated world. The Wachowskis packed up their cast, which includes Emile Hirsch as Speed, Matthew Fox as Racer X and Christina Ricci as Trixie, and sequestered them on a Berlin sound stage, where nearly the entire film was shot.

"It's a racing movie, and there's not a real car in the whole thing," Hirsch says. "It was a little like living in the 'Matrix.'"

The filmmakers shot still pictures in Morocco, Greece, Italy, France, Germany and California to create backdrops for the movie's elaborate races. For those scenes, actors sat in a rotating gimbal that the brothers worked with a remote control while animators created a landscape whipping by.

The brothers rigged a special monitor that let actors see themselves in the artificial backgrounds so they'd know if they were racing through the desert or speeding through the Alps.

"You're sitting there in this little cage, thinking there's no way it's going to look real," Fox says. "Then they'd bring us behind the camera to look at the shot, and we're racing through a mountain pass. That's the reason I wanted to do this movie, to work with them. They try things few directors would."

The film, Hirsch says, was initially a jarring adjustment from the months he spent in the Alaskan wilderness for last year's Into the Wild. "But it's worth it to see the brothers work," he says. "You've got all these monitors, computers, monkeys. You feel like you're getting to listen in on geniuses — who went a little mad."

Ricci prefers to think of their films as the product of geekiness than madness.

"You know they still play Dungeons and Dragons?" Ricci asks. "You'll be sitting around on set, listening to them go on and on about why they hate the concept of time travel. I love that. There's all this mystery around them because they don't talk to press. But they're really very sweet, kind of sensitive guys who happen to have a nerdy side."

Kinder, gentler anime

It's that combination, Silver says, that's key to the success of "Racer" — and anime overall.

"If it's all just effects and style, it isn't going to work," he says. "Audiences see right through that. But the brothers really loved "Speed Racer." And they wanted to make a family movie, something they've never done."

Indeed, those looking for the body count and dark themes of the Wachowskis' earlier films such as "The Matrix" and "V for Vendetta" won't find it in "Racer," an homage to the show they watched religiously as children.

The original 1967 series, "Mahha GoGoGo," became the first Japanese anime to succeed on U.S. television, running for two years and spawning toys and clothes. And like that show, the film doesn't have an ironic bone in its body.

"They aren't smirking when they made this," Silver says. "It meant a lot to them. It showed them that animation wasn't just "The Flintstones." You could push the envelope."

Of course, envelope-pushing isn't typically Hollywood's style, and anime fans may be wondering whether big studios will retain the themes and tone of their favorite stories.

"There was no pathos in the original Speed Racer, so I don't think that's a concern for fans," Bertschy says. "But a lot of anime is dark. It deals with existential philosophy. It doesn't always end happily. Fans are glad anime is getting its day, but people are holding their breaths to see what the movies are like."