"Oban Star-Racers": Pure Racing Fun
If there’s one thing you’d think would be a surefire hit, it would be a racing series. NASCAR’s getting more popular by the day, racing games are always popular, and everybody loves a cool car. But TV series based on racing, especially the animated ones, tend to suck. After Speed Racer and Wacky Races, both of which had other plot devices to distract from the racing action, few series, even the criminally underappreciated IGPX, have been able to captivate audiences. The latest show to take a stab at the genre is Oban Star-Racers.
In the year 2082, the Earth is at war with a group of evil overlords known as the Crogs. Instead of the usual military battles, though, the two compete in the form of a race. Not just any race, however. This one spans the entire galaxy, with every planet participating. The Earth government has appointed Don Wei, the top Star-Racer manager in the world, to head its team, and given him a couple of gifted mechanics, a trigger-happy gunner, and a stylish Star-Racer champion to work with. But that’s not all: A young girl named Eva stows away on the spaceship, forces herself onto the team and, eventually, takes over as the main driver. She’s Don Wei’s daughter, and she’s trying to get back into her father’s life even though he tried abandoning her after losing her mother in a traumatic accident. Now, under the name of Molly, Eva has to juggle this personal struggle, the race, and new friendships with alien allies all at the same time.
Oban Star-Racers is a French/Japanese co-production, and it’s better for that fact. The designs are more varied than are usual in sci-fi shows, which reinforces the fact that it’s different species, not just different Earthlings, competing. Each ship has its own personality and weapon, which makes the battles much more interesting. One ship looks like a giant Viking boat. Another is literally a giant bug, while yet another looks like it was taken from the Windows “Pipes” screensaver. The aliens are also a varied lot, ranging from the squid-like to the cyborg-like. One alien is even a JPop-esque robot cat who acts like a typical stuck-up teenage girl and controls her ship using a DDR pad. Such rich visual designs make it a helluva lot more interesting than if everyone were just humans with funny ears, green skin, and freaky hair. Each species is also given its own little quirks, and not all members of a particular race act the same way, which is a refreshing change from most sci-fi shows. It would’ve been nice if the series had gone the Star Wars route and given everybody their own language, but maybe someone decided the kids wouldn’t go for subtitles.
The story, while obviously kid-safe, is still rather mature, and the plot and the multitude of bad guys make for an intriguing story that keeps you guessing, especially near the end of the season. The characters, though, manage to be both deep and one-note at the same time. Molly, for instance, isn’t just the typical teen that stumbles into the latest tech and instantly masters it. Instead, she must struggle to earn the respect of her cohorts; despite her innate talent, she crashes and burns a lot, and is clearly not the best racer in the pool. But she is constantly complaining about her father; every single scene between them ends with Molly muttering to herself about what a horrible dad Don is, which makes an interesting plot point utterly annoying after awhile.
Molly is not the other character with this kind of problem. Her father refuses to relay any vital story info to the rest of the team, so he often comes off as a jerkass. Jordan, the Earth team’s gunner, is often treated as a third wheel, and Prince Aikka, the main alien good guy, often feels more like a plot device than an actual character. Only Rick, the Earth team’s original pilot, is an exception. He learns to accept the twist of fate that sidelined him and spends the rest of the season either training Molly or searching for the bad guys who caused his injury. It may just be a trick of the actor’s voice, but Rick is one of the characters that’s instantly likable as soon as he appears.
Much of the series focuses on the characters’ relationships and feelings outside the races. This is well and good, because the actual races themselves suffer. Maybe I am spoiled by IGPX, but the races here just seem a bit dull by comparison. The courses aren’t too long, and because all the ships are gigantic, it often means the course is very restricting, not allowing for some good, old fashioned racing tricks. However, the biggest problem is the sense of speed. These ships are supposed to reach 400+kph, yet they rarely ever feel like they’re going that fast. Much of the time, instead of whizzing by the backgrounds and zooming past spectators, the racers will fly by with little to no blurring seen. This reduces some of the tension, as it feels like the race has barely begun, even when the contenders are near the finish line. Some of the races break from the mold, such as one that takes place in a giant battle arena or another that’s a “Target Smash”-type course. But even then, the stuff still doesn’t compare to certain other racing series.
The dub is done by the ever-reliable Ocean Group, with Chiara Zanni (Molly), Sam Vincent (Jordan), and Kirby Morrow (Aikka) leading the way. All the performers do extremely well. The DVD set comes with the original Japanese BGM, as well as the original Japanese opening and ending sequences. The producers somehow managed to get Yoko Kanno, and once again she delivers an enchanting score with some beautiful vocals to match. The opening theme may feel a bit familiar to fans of RaXephon and/or Arjuna, but it’s still highly addictive, even if there are no subtitles to go with the many instances of Engrish. There’s only one problem with the audio: This French/Japanese co-pro lacks either a French or Japanese audio track.
Extras are decently plentiful for this two-disc set. Disc 1 includes small profiles on all the major racers and original concept art for the series, while disc 2 showcases the profile commercials that aired on Jetix and the original Jetix trailer for the series. There’s also a sneak peek at Volume 2, which covers the heroes’ adventures on Oban itself. However, the biggie extra is the first part of “The Making of Oban Star-Racers,” which focuses on the creators’ attempts to create the pilot and pitch it to TV networks. The feature is quite informative, going deeply behind the scenes without getting too boring. Both discs also have trailers for Pucca, Medabots, and Sam & Max. There’s only one thing missing from this set: the actual pilot itself. I know it’s been on the Internet forever, but the original pilot still would’ve been a cool extra. Instead, we only get to see a few brief scenes during the behind-the-scenes special.
Oban Star-Racers is far from perfect, but it is definitely much better than it has any right to be. Oban Star-Racers is pure racing fun. 9.5 out of 10!