Introduction: Seeing as The Matrix is one of my all-time favorite movies (though I enjoy the trilogy as a whole), I’ve been on the lookout for the next masterpiece created by the Wachowskis. Sadly, to date, they just haven’t seemed able to score another hit, so films such as Cloud Atlas I’ve taken an indefinite disinterest in and the overly ambitious Jupiter Ascending, while visually stunning and offering up some creative ideas, was just a mediocre sci-fi action romp. However, the trailers for Speed Racer sparked my interest. While I am only vaguely aware of the original Japanese cartoon, I saw the Wachowskis’ name attached to this movie and wondered if it would be worthwhile. While I never caught it in theaters, I recently sat down and checked it out. So is Speed Racer a high octane ride or does it fall asleep behind the wheel? Be aware – some spoilers may be present throughout.
The Story: Speed Racer (2008) is a live-action reboot of the classic 1960s Japanese cartoon show (also known as Mach GoGoGo in its native Japan). In this version, we’re introduced to the titular character (played by Emile Hirsch), a teenage driving phenomenon whose entire family gets in on the action, including his parents (John Goodman and Susan Sarandon), little brother Spritle, and his girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci). However, Speed lost an older brother, Rex, in the infamous Casa Cristo 500 race and his death made a deep mark on the young Speed. Yet he continues to race while the Racer family is determined to maintain their legacy as well as a clean record of refusing to accept sponsors. However, Speed just might be given an offer he can’t refuse when the CEO of Royalton Industries approaches him. But in the end, Speed declines, echoing his father’s distrust in big companies. His decision then sets off a chain reaction that eventually puts Speed in the company of the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) and in the driver’s seat where he must race for his life.
My Take: I confess I know next to nothing about the original Speed Racer cartoon other than I’m familiar with the theme song and the basic premise as I remember seeing snippets of it when it aired in syndication on MTV years ago. Other than that, I went into this movie as good as blind, which sometimes is a good thing to see if a rebooted property can stand on its own as a story. Overall, despite its insane racing sequences and vivid color palette, Speed Racer is surprisingly dull though it’s not entirely without its merits.
One thing is for sure – this film doesn’t skimp on color! At first, I liked the super-vivid palette as it combines the vibrant hues of a melted crayon box with the illuminated garishness of Las Vegas. Seeing as this is a live action reboot of a cartoon show, using more cartoonish shades works but only for a time. For a two hour-long film, the constant, rapidly changing DayGlo shades grated on my eyes until I almost couldn’t follow the film’s action anymore. While I appreciated it as a visual design risk, I think it’s an effect that impresses quickly but soon becomes annoying and resembles something more akin to a video game. This is especially true during the overly-long racing sequences, which evolve into nothing more than flashes of bright lights and colors. (So, just to note, none of the screenshots in this post have been edited or enhanced by me in any way – this is what the film actually looks like.)
While Speed Racer recycles a familiar story formula (i.e. the “little man” v. the big corporation), I really did love the Racer family. They’re all just so adorable and you can’t help but root for them. They’re not a perfect family as both the kids and the adults make mistakes, but there is an overriding spirit of goodwill, love, forgiveness, and teamwork embedded deep in their dynamic. Mom and Pops adore their sons and are quick to praise Speed for his racing talents as they are the image of a strong, hard-working, supportive, loving family. Also comprising the family circle is Speed’s little brother Spritle and Spritle’s pet chimpanzee, Chim Chim. While these two characters were cute and delivered some decent laughs, I felt like they were incorporated more as comic foils than principle players. Rounding out the Racer family clan are the Racers’ personal mechanic, Sparky, and Speed’s girlfriend, Trixie, both of whom are near-members of the family. Overall, I enjoyed seeing the strong bonds between the Racers and their friends and it makes them easy to stand alongside when trouble comes racing (pun intended) to their doorstep.
On the other hand, the chief villain, E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam), is nothing more than a cardboard cutout bad guy who really has no redeeming value. Rather than be a compelling or even an entertaining antagonist, Royalton is reduced to the typical evil big wig trope whose angry outbursts are so over the top that they become unintentionally funny. Everything from his attempts to make nice with the Racers, to smarm up to Speed and tempt him with loads of luxury, to finally put a bounty on the young racer’s head are all predictable decisions, so nothing he did comes as a surprise. It’s kind of a shame because, for me, villains can make or break a story; so pitting Speed against a weak villain didn’t give him that much of a challenge to defeat in the end. (In fact, some of these race courses seem more villainous than the actual villain!)
Story-wise, this film doesn’t tread any new ground in terms of plot or theme, but at least the latter is admirable. Speed refuses to give into Royalton’s demands and wants to race on his own terms. He doesn’t feel he needs a big, fancy company sponsoring him nor will he play dirty just for the sake of winning a race. Speed is a true gentleman who knows his strengths and does what he can to ensure that his family’s name – not just his name – remains untarnished. In the same way, he respects the memory of his brother, even to the point of purposely refusing to break Rex’s previous racing record. Sadly though, actor Hirsch isn’t given much to do through it all besides race and scowl; so while Speed is an all-around nice guy, we don’t really get to know him much beyond that scope.
While I fully expected a movie called Speed Racer to contain racing sequences, I actually wished there were fewer such scenes as they are unduly long and seem to act to fill in space as opposed to having scenes of plot building and character development. By way of example, the first fifteen minutes of the film is a car race with flashbacks thrown in to ground some of the characters’ backgrounds. This is all fine and good, and these initial scenes do help establish the film’s tone and story. But it seems like it isn’t long after that than we’re thrust into another even longer racing sequence when Speed enters the Casa Cristo. After that, we have a few quieter moments until the film closes out with yet another lengthy racing sequence. As a whole, it was all too much, especially as the races come at the viewer like a rapid-fire visual deluge of lights and colors. Perhaps this type of plot structure could have worked if the film was an hour or so shorter, thus forcing the racing scenes to be abbreviated. But for a two hour movie, it feels like 80% of the time is spent on the racetrack.
Likewise, the story pulls no surprises and is fairly predictable, what little concrete plot there is. The villain doesn’t offer any compelling schemes. The racers Speed teams up with – Taejo and the enigmatic Racer X – are mildly interesting but emotionally one note characters. Everything combined generates a lackluster story once you mentally tune out all of the throbbing colors and wiz-bang special effects. Granted, the film delivers positive messages about standing up for your convictions and standing by your family; however, there is no surprise as to how this is carried out as the choices the characters make are predicable as are the outcomes and consequences. There is also a mystery element to the story that could have been better revealed. From the start, we’re led to believe (as is Speed and his family) that Rex was killed. However, one character comes along that causes Speed to wonder if Rex is truly dead. While I won’t share anything further about how this plot element gets wrapped up, I will say that the resolution didn’t come as a surprise. In fact, rather than have a denouement at the end, the film almost reveals the true fate of Rex early on, which ruined the mystery element for me.
The colorful trailers made me curious to see what kind of film Speed Racer might be and the trailers are true to the film. It’s bright, colorful, fast-paced, and full of wild futuristic car races. But is it any good? And does it deserve the harsh criticism it received as it was considered a box office failure? To be fair, Speed Racer isn’t a total burnout but it’s not a definitive film for the Wachowskis. While the unique visual style is a risk that pays off for a short time, it soon becomes taxing on the eyes. While the lead characters are fun and morally admirable, they’re not memorable. While the story delivers positive messages about doing the right thing and using your in-born talents, it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before in terms of presenting unique dilemmas. Combine all of that with several overly-long racing sequences and a mystery element that’s nearly revealed from the start, and Speed Racer deserves to not be lauded as a great film but does serve as a rather curious cinematic oddity.
Content Breakdown: Speed Racer was given a PG rating but my assessment of its content is as follows:
Language – Profanity usage is relatively minor with only a handful of PG-level words and two harsher PG-13 words. Also, in a blink-and-miss-it moment, a little boy gives the finger to an adult character.
Violence – Aside from some non-bloody fight/martial arts sequences, most of the lengthy racing scenes involve tense action and cutthroat tactics, from drivers trying to cause other racers to wreck, to cars being outfitted to purposely damage or destroy competitor’s vehicles. Elsewhere, we see the remains of a fiery crash but the driver’s body is never shown. Finally, it’s worth noting that the racing sequences involve bright flashing lights and colors, which might effect persons with photosensitive epilepsy.
Sexual Material – None. Speed and Trixie’s relationship is chaste and the couple shares a few modest kisses.
Recommended Audiences: In my opinion, I believe Speed Racer stacks up this way (note that just because something isn’t recommended for a certain age group doesn’t make it “bad”):
Children – Not recommended, chiefly due to the film’s length and relentless action. While younger children might be mesmerized by the bright colors and chuckle at Chim Chim’s antics, I would venture to guess that their attention spans would wan rather quickly.
Older Children & Teens – Recommended, at least for a clean popcorn flick. Older children and teens might better tolerate the racing set pieces, but unless they’re fans of the cast or the original cartoon, I can’t really see them investing much interest.
Young Adults & Adults – Recommended, though don’t expect to be wowed yet it does have its moments of entertainment. And, of course, fans of the Speed Racer cartoon might be tempted to check it out for nostalgia’s sake.
Speed Racer is yet another swing-and-a-miss for the Wachowskis as it fails to present anything truly original or thought- provoking. That being said, it is a mildly entertaining racing movie that’s worth watching provided viewers can tolerate the unabashedly bright and colorful cinematic style. Fans of the Speed Racer cartoon might find more to like here; but for everyone else this is a certified popcorn flick that, for what it’s worth, isn’t a complete waste of two hours and avoids taking itself too seriously.