Lionsgate puts animated series into top gear

Here he comes, here comes “Speed Racer,” back on the smallscreen.

Lionsgate will announce today plans for its first animated series, a new version of the 1960s toon “Speed Racer.” Nickelodeon’s 24-hour cartoon channel, Nicktoons, is aboard to run the initial 26 episodes.

The new “Speed Racer” cartoon is set to launch next year, around the same time that Warner Bros.’ live-action “Speed Racer,” directed by the Wachowskis, hits theaters.

“It seemed like the right time to do a revival,” said Ken Katsumoto, exec VP of family entertainment at Lionsgate. “When this opportunity arose to revive such a classic property, we jumped.”

The two properties aren’t related, although Katsumoto said he sees the theatrical “as a giant promotional vehicle for ‘Speed Racer’ the brand.”

“We’ll utilize that promotional opportunity to our advantage,” he added.

But Lionsgate has its own merchandising plans for the return of the “Speed Racer” cartoon.

“What we’re hearing from licensees is they love the longevity of a series brand,” Katsumoto said. “This franchise deserves more than a 10-week box office run. It deserves a five-year TV run.”

Lionsgate has hired the Gotham-based Animation Collective (Nickelodeon’s “Kappa Mikey”) to help produce the new “Speed Racer.” Animation Collective CEO Larry Schwarz will exec produce, along with Speed Racer Enterprise principals John and James Rocknowski.

In the new franchise, young Speed Racer enters a racing academy for the fastest kids on Earth — and discovers that he’s the son of the legendary (and original series’) Speed Racer. He also finds out in the first few episodes that he has a brother — the new Racer X — whom he never knew existed.

Speed Racer wows the school with his Mach 6 (an updated version of the original show’s Mach 5) — the most advanced vehicle in the universe, which doesn’t run on gas. Speed and X team together to prevent villains from stealing the Mach 6 and to find out who’s behind the mysterious disappearance of their father.

Other characters returning include original Speed Racer’s younger brother Spritle, now headmaster of the racing academy. And chimpanzee Chim-Chim is now a mechanical robot.

Peter Fernandez, who voiced Speed Racer in the dubbed American version of the original “Speed Racer,” is aboard to voice Spritle.

Katsumoto and Rocknowski said the new version will stay as true to the original as possible, while allowing for updates like CG animation (including the cars and the background images) and more accurately synched voices.

Every three episodes of “Speed Racer” will operate together as a mini-movie but will also be divisible into a daily strip.

“Speed Racer” first hit U.S. shores in 1967, one of the first Japanese anime-style franchises to make it here. The franchise was briefly revived twice in recent years, in 1993’s “The New Adventures of Speed Racer” and 2002’s “Speed Racer X.” Neither lasted long.

The new “Speed Racer” comes as Lionsgate continues to expand its family entertainment biz, with a live-action “Bratz” movie coming out this August, as well as two more feature films on the docket: “Foodfight!” and “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble.”

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