Oban Star-Racers, on France 3 / Toon Disney Japan / Toon Disney (USA)
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Well, this is a French/Japanese coproduction. I gather it was originally supposed to be called "Molly, Star-Racer," back in 2001, but I never heard of it back then, and I'm not sure if it even ever got beyond the trailer stage, or what. But in 2006 it became a series, with a new title. I should also say that the show originally had opening and closing theme songs by Yoko Kanno, and Jetix replaced them, which is simply unforgivable. Although after the first few eps, they seem to have at least changed the closing theme to what it should be, so that's something. And I don't really mind the English opening theme song, I actually kinda like it.
Anyway, apparently in like the second half of the 21st century, Earth was at war with some aliens called Crogs... who left after a mysterious being called the Avatar showed up and invited Earth to join a race at the center of the galaxy, on a world called Oban. And then I guess it's like 25 years later when the Avatar appears again, because it's like, time for the race to start... though actually there will be several preliminary races on three different planets equidistant from Oban. Of course, all this is secret from most of the people on Earth, who think we defeated the Crogs 25 years ago. (Kinda reminds me of Babylon 5's "Battle of the Line.")
But meanwhile, there's this 15-year-old girl named Eva, who fixes up a rocket seat (some sort of hoverbike thing), and ditches her boarding school to go find her father, Don Wei, who runs a racing organization or whatever. But when she gets there, he doesn't even recognize her. She fixes some ship or something, though, so he hires her as a mechanic. She takes on the name Molly, and hides her identity, though it seems clear she wants to tell him she's his daughter, sooner or later. Though she grows to resent him more and more for having abandoned her, and for not recognizing her. Anyway, she stows away, when Don Wei and his racing team, including a pilot named Rick Thunderbolt, a gunner named Jordan Wilde, and two mechanics named Stan and Koji, leave Earth for Alwas, the planet where Earth will be competing in preliminary races. And when Rick gets injured in his first race, Molly ends up taking his place, over Don Wei's objections.
Welp, Molly will have to race against lots of weird but interesting aliens, in lots of different kinds of star-racers. It kinda reminds me of the pod races from Star Wars: Episode I, but... with even more variety, it seems, on different kinds of courses as well as different ships and aliens. One of the competitors is a Crog named Colonel Toros, who has done lots of terrible things in wars against various alien races, and now wins pretty much every race he's in. Another racer is Prince Aikka of Nourasia, and he and Molly obviously seem to develop feelings for each other, though they never really do much of anything about it. And Jordan also develops feelings for Molly. But he definitely doesn't care for Aikka, whose people seem to have an alliance with the Crogs, and expect him to let Toros win, though he doesn't want to. Another character who pops up from time to time is Satis, the servant of the Avatar (who we very rarely see). He also races under the name Super Racer. And there's a racer named Rush who befriends Molly and Jordan. His homeworld had been basically destroyed by Toros. And there's a racer named Spirit, who had been in a race on Earth 10 years ago when Eva's mother, Maya, a champion racer herself, died. Her death was responsible for Don Wei wanting to forget his past, including his daughter.
And, well, there were various other racers, most of whom I didn't find that memorable, except for Para-dice, who's kind of like a cross between a catgirl and a TV, plus she's a hacker, and her ship's controls are like DDR. But anyway, all the racers were interesting enough, I suppose. And there's definitely some kind of mystery going on, which Rick tries to investigate, once he's no longer able to pilot Earth's star-racer, the Whizzing Arrow. (Actually, in most of the races it's the Arrow II, after the first one was wrecked, and later on that one's wrecked too, and Stan and Koji have to build the Whizzing Arrow III, with some assistance from an unlikely source....) The Avatar's mysterious enough, but there's also some other, similarly ancient and powerful being called the Timeless One (his real name is Canaletto). Unfortunately, Rick's investigations don't seem to go as far as he'd like. And eventually he ends up spending most of his time coaching Molly. Oh, and we eventually learn that the winner of the Great Race of Oban will receive "the Ultimate Prize" from the Avatar- apparently, he can make any wish come true. Eva wants to bring her mother back to life, so she and her parents can be a family again. But all the racers are very eager to obtain the prize, each for their own reasons. Earth is desperate to win, but more importantly, to make sure the Crogs don't win.
Well, at the end of the preliminaries, three racers will go on to race in the finals on Oban. The Earth team is one of them, of course (though Rick doesn't accompany Molly and the others, he apparently heads back to Earth). As are the Crogs- Toros was in first place, having only lost a single race, at the very end. However, since Crogs find any failure unacceptable, he is replaced by General Kross. It shouldn't be too surprising to learn that the other finalist from the Alwas preliminaries was Prince Aikka. And in episode 14, they all head to Oban, along with six previously unseen racers, the finalists from the preliminaries on the other two worlds. I wasn't really as interested in most of them as I was in the racers from Alwas, I'm afraid. But they were okay. There was one very powerful racer named Sul, who won most of the races on Oban and was a threat to Canaletto. One team was a pair of sisters named Ning and Skun, who seemed almost vampiric to me, and I'd say they were my favorite of the new racers.
Well, there are plenty of secrets to learn about, like the origins of Oban and the galaxy itself, and the true identity of the Avatar, and the true nature of the Ultimate Prize, and... I don't really know what else to say. There are some surprises, and one of the best endings I've ever seen to any series. There were times I thought the show was just pretty good (or even just okay), and times I thought it was truly awesome. On the whole, I definitely love it and would highly recommend it. And stick with it, even if you don't like it that much at first, it gets way better. There's some great animation (even if nobody has a nose, for no apparent reason), and great drama, and great mysteries. The races themselves can be cool (or kind of boring at times, perhaps), but they're really little more than a framework for the larger drama (of both galactic and personal significance) to unfold....