Remember Captain Marvel, the muscular superhero from the golden age of comics? You know, the World's Mightiest Mortal. He's the one who was really Billy Batson, just another ordinary kid - until he uttered the word "Shazam!" and morphed into the grinning grown-up good guy with the lightning bolt on his costume. He was just like Superman, only more Boy Scouty.
The idea of an average kid who can turn into not just a superhero but a whole other being lives on in Cartoon Network's "Ben 10." The animated series (which ended its run last year but continues in a sequel series, "Ben 10: Alien Force") is something of a Captain Marvel for the modern age: young Ben Tennyson, on vacation with his grandfather Max and cousin Gwen, discovers the Omnitrix, a watch-like device that can transform Ben into any of ten alien lifeforms. He uses this new power to save the day, a chore which usually involves a good ol' fight with some strange monster.
All of this brings us to "Ben 10: Race Against Time," a live-action adaptation of the series that also acts as a semi-sequel of sorts to the show. The movie premiered on Cartoon Network in November 2007, but don't let the made-for-TV label fool you - this is a thrilling, energetic, and endlessly clever upgrade of a very smart franchise, a movie that would've been right at home on multiplex screens.
Graham Phillips stars as Ben, who's dismayed to see his summer adventures finally ending. Returning to his home town, he doesn't want to go back to school, where he's a nobody; he yearns for action and itches to tell the popular kids that he's really all those superhero aliens. Alas, he must keep his secret, even if it means having to put up with homework and school bullies.
Ah, but of course Ben can't escape the life of a superhero. A nasty alien baddie named Eon (Christien Anholt) shows up in town, looking for something called the Hands of Armageddon, which can open a rift in time and space, thus letting an armada of ancient warships that will quickly invade Earth. Not good. Worse, Eon knows Ben's secret. Double worse, Eon needs to steal the Omnitix for his own nefarious schemes - which would include the end of Ben himself.
It sounds complicated, and in a way it is, what with all those alien artifacts and time-traveling space ships, not to mention the secret society of planetary defenders called "Plumbers," or the secret underground base, or the stuff about the Omnitrix's fail-safe properties, or the subplot involving the school talent show. But the screenplay, by Mitch Watson, never loses its focus, and the result is a healthy dose of intelligent kid-friendly sci-fi, never dumbed down, yet never lost in its own technobabble. Watson's script is rich and witty; it takes a winking approach to the material that will amuse fans (one line of dialogue brings up the fact that cartoon Ben always wore the same shirt) while maintaining a respect for the series' mythology.
Indeed, everyone brings a sly attitude to the proceedings. The grown-ups - who make up the majority of the story's comic relief - play their roles with tongue firmly in cheek (a wisecracking Lee Majors steals the show as Grandpa Max), while the kids play things straight. (A slight detour involving a sloppy explosion of food at the local diner takes is our only trip to Disney Channel movie territory.) Winning additional points for the movie is the hiring of Alex Winter, the former star of the "Bill & Ted" movies and writer/director of such gonzo projects as "The Idiot Box" and "Freaked," as director; he's a natural filmmaker who lends a breezy charm here, expertly bringing a bold, colorful styling to the live action presentation.
For fans keeping score at home, the movie's limited budget only allowed for four of Ben's alien alter egos to appear on screen. They are: Heatblast, the fire-throwing hero; Grey Matter, the tiny alien imp; Diamondhead, who pops up for the final brawl; and the shaggy beast named Wildmutt. All look impressive as CG-effects creations.
Video & Audio
The anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer looks stunning, which is a pleasant surprise for a TV movie made for basic cable. Colors are deep and rich, lending the picture a nice look that brings home the movie's "comic book" feel.
The soundtrack booms in Dolby 5.1 Surround, nicely balancing the dialogue and effects; an alternate stereo track also sounds very good, effectively duplicating the broadcast experience. Optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided.
(Note: The packaging mislabels both the aspect ratio and the soundtrack format. The above specs, not those listed on the box, are correct.)
Three brief "Behind the Scenes" featurettes look like they originally aired on Cartoon Network (either during the movie itself or during shows leading up to it), although some sources suggest these were produced to run on the network's website. Either way, they're far too short and skimpy. "Ben 10: The Movie!" (2:03) offers a quick introduction to cast and crew, who explain the plot; "The Omnitrix/Eon" (2:03) finds cast and crew discussing the alien device and the movie's villain; "The Movie According to Gwen" (1:33) mixes on-set goofiness with actress Haley Ramm with more standard EPK-style interviews. All three bits serve as nifty teasers for the movie, but none offer any real in-depth look at the production.
"Live at the L.A. Premiere" (1:37) is simple home video footage of Winter introducing the movie at an advance multiplex screening. Winter gives a nice speech, but the audio (likely captured on the camcorder's in-camera microphone) is rough, making listening a chore.
"Meet the Cast with Fried Dynamite" (6:51) is a compilation of clips which originally aired during the network's Friday night programming block. Each clip finds young host Blake visiting cast and crew on the movie set, although as with the other featurettes, this material serves more as a teaser promoting the film's premiere.
All extras are presented in 1.33:1 full frame, with movie clips properly letterboxed.
"Race Against Time" is a whiz-bang family adventure sure to please fans and newcomers alike. There's talk of a sequel being in the works, and this is a movie that deserves one. Recommended.