Future of Anime Remains Bright Despite ‘Speed Racer’ Failure

As Speed Racer (Warner Bros) wraps its 2nd weekend at the box office with a less-than-stellar $8.1M, it continues to deal with a crush of negative press. After a disappointing 10-day total of just less than $32M, it will be difficult for this film adaptation from the Wachowskis to survive the box office onslaught of Indiana Jones starting Thursday. Critics have given mixed-to-negative reviews (35% Fresh at Rotten Tomatoes), but there is a segment of moviegoers who are especially satisfied with the movie: anime fans.

Zac Bertschy, the Executive Editor of the Anime News Network, says that the reaction has been “overwhelmingly positive” and that anime fans “appreciate it for what it is.” With a number of anime-inspired projects in development in Hollywood, it will be interesting to see if Speed Racer’s chilly reception will have any effect.

“Only retro hipsters and Generation X remember Speed Racer,” Bertschy told me. “The attitude in the anime community was wait-and-see, but when the trailer was released people started getting excited”? He says that the bright colors, kinetic style, flat look and the fact that normal laws of physics do not apply all add up to a terrific live action approximation of anime. “This movie is very ambitious. They were trying for something really out-there. It was a big gamble.”

It is a gamble that the Wachowskis and Joel Silver are paying for now, but will other live action anime adaptations in development be hurt as well? Bertschy says that it is not fair to blame Speed Racer’s failure on its anime origins. “Anime is typically adult animation. The projects in development are completely different stories and none of them, except for Dragonball, are targeting the same family audience.” 

Dragonball Z is easily the most popular anime series in the U.S. It was created by Akira Toriyama in the mid-1980s, and, after several failed attempts, a dubbed version of the show landed on the Cartoon Network in 1998. It has been running ever since, and Fox’s live-action film version of the show is set for release in April of next year. Produced by Stephen Chow (Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle) and directed by James Wong (The X-Files, Final Destination), this movie will be aimed squarely at the kid set. Bertschy, whose Anime News Network is the #1 anime site in the world, says his readers have a “high level of skepticism” about Dragonball and that “expectations are very low.”

Fans are excited about the grown-up, live-action anime-inspired adaptations in various stages of development. These projects will likely feature the sort of hyper-stylized look and kinetic hyperactivity that are the hallmarks of great anime, and the projects are being championed by some of Hollywood’s greatest talent.

Ironically, Warner Bros is the studio behind two of the most-anticipated anime-style projects, but will they be gun shy after the Speed Racer experience? Academy Award nominee Leonardo DiCaprio is working on an ambitious live-action version of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira that will move the action from ‘Neo-Tokyo’ to ‘Neo-Manhattan.’ The plan is for two films with Ireland’s Ruairi Robinson set to make his directing debut. This is dystopian science fiction, which will likely have more of a Matrix trilogy look, and it is tentatively set for next summer. Akira has all the makings of a blockbuster franchise.

Also last fall, Warner Bros announced that they have acquired the film rights to Robotech with Tobey Maguire set to produce and star. This is a possible tentpole franchise about alien invasions of Earth and the robot technology designed to defeat the invaders. This big-budget picture is at least two years away.

After Oscar winner James Cameron’s Avatar is unleashed in December of 2009, the rumor is that he will turn his attentions to Battle Angel Alita. This Fox property is about a female cyborg with amnesia, but Cameron is notoriously deliberate, and it is hard to imagine seeing this one until at least 2010.

M. Night Shyamalan, whose The Happening will arrive in multiplexes June 13, has begun work on The Last Airbender, based on the popular Nickelodeon series. Technically, this proposed Paramount film is not anime, but it certainly has that anime flavor. It features a character who can control the elements, and this will reportedly be Shyamalan’s biggest budget film ever. Airbender is tentatively set for July 2010.

Finally, Steven Spielberg has been patiently “circling” Masamune Shirow’s classic Ghost in the Shell as a 3-D live-action feature. DreamWorks owns the rights to the futuristic police thriller and Avi Arad, who has successfully produced the three Spider-Man movies, the three X-Men movies, the two Fantastic Four movies, Iron Man and the upcoming Incredible Hulk, is attached to produce, and Jamie Moss (Street Kings) is reportedly working on the screenplay. No release date is projected yet.