Cuaron revving up cartoon pics

NEW YORK — “Speed Racer” is emerging from a prolonged pit stop with director Alfonso Cuaron at the wheel.

Cuaron (“A Little Princess”) has been hired by Warner Bros. to work with producer Lauren Shuler-Donner to get the film to the starting line as a streamlined vehicle costing as much as $20 million less than originally configured.

High action, high cost

“Speed Racer” was once near a greenlight with a script by J.J. Abrams, with Julien Temple set to direct and Johnny Depp expected to star. But the high action led to a high cost.

“The problem at the time was the movie was conceived at too high a budget,” says Shuler-Donner. “There was a rivalry with a villain character,” she says, “and those scenes would have cost a fortune to film.” Instead, the focus will narrow to the racing family hatched in the ’60s cartoon that became internationally famous, and that Cuaron watched as a child in Mexico.

Preventing financial collapses

“Speed Racer” is just one example of how studios more and more are trying to catch problems in the script stage to keep budgets manageable and help prevent financial-related collapses of films in pre-production.

That’s what happened last week to the $94 million Phil Alden Robinson-directed “The Age of Aquarius,” which Harrison Ford exited, and to the $108 million “I Am Legend.” “Legend’s” budget impasse set the film back six months or more, with reps for Arnold Schwarzenegger and director Ridley Scott shopping them for immediate employment.

Pared-down costs

The chase to cut costs on paper began with “Godzilla,” with TriStar choking on Jan De Bont’s proposed $145 million pic. Reconfigured by “Independence Day” duo Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, the film’s expected to be a summer spectacle at a $100 million negative cost.

At WB, the Barry Levinson-directed “Sphere” paused during pre-production, and the same has happened with effects-heavy fare like “Fantastic Four” and “The Silver Surfer.”

Shuler-Donner’s going through similar reconfiguring of the superhero saga “X-Men,” which Ed Solomon is scripting for director Bryan Singer.

“There are some costs you simply cannot avoid in doing these movies, but if you can somehow focus more on story and keep a cost-conscious eye on the effects, you can keep the movie from becoming prohibitively costly,” Shuler-Donner says. Additionally, “if you can keep a movie under two hours with more character focus, you might find you have a better movie and a better chance in the marketplace.”

Cuaron is repped by Endeavor.

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