Warner Bros. // 2008 // 135 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // September 16th, 2008
Trixie [while watching race from above]: Move it, Speed! It's getting ugly out there!
Speed Racer hit screens in May of 2008 and became the biggest disappointment of the summer. The budget was a staggering $120 million, and yet domestically the film only managed to make just above $40 million during its shorter-than-expected theatrical run. Critics and fans tore the movie apart, calling it merely an overblown explosion of visual style without any charm or substance, and audiences stayed away in droves. On paper the whole thing sounded like a strong contender for runaway success: two very hip directors who had cranked out The Matrix, an all-star cast, source material from a beloved anime series, and subject matter that should have played to NASCAR fans and kids. But in a summer where The Dark Knight and Iron Man ruled, there wasn't a whole lot of room for the visually stunning yet all-too simple idea of a boy and his family beating the bad guys on the track. And the big question now is, will home video be a little more forgiving as Speed promises his adventure just ahead for your home system?
Speed Racer is about a rising star in the racing world named Speed (Emile Hirsch, Into the Wild). He's not corporate-sponsored, but rather has the entire Racer family helping him to win. Pops (John Goodman, The Flintstones) designs the cars, Mom (Susan Sarandon, Bull Durham) makes pancakes, Spritle (Paulie Litt, Jersey Girl) cheers him on with his sidekick chimp, and girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci, Black Snake Moan) offers advice and coaching from her helicopter. Speed is driven to win by the lingering ghost of his brother, Rex Racer, who passed away during a dangerous cross country race.
Once Speed wins a major track race, he becomes the target of a huge, soulless corporation that wants to sponsor him. The evil CEO (Roger Allam, The Queen) reveals to Speed that without his help he will never win, because most of the World Racing League contests are fixed by powerful men like him who make money off the glory of their drivers. Speed refuses to sell out, and soon finds himself a target at the races to be taken out. In comes the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox, Lost) to help him on a crusade to reveal the machinations of the sport. Can Speed beat the bad guys and win the ultimate Grand Prix?
Originally, there was a Japanese cartoon created in 1967 called Mahha GoGoGo, which was imported to America as Speed Racer. The lead character of Speed was called Go Mifune in his home country, which explains the "M" on the car and the "G" on his helmet. The early anime had a distinctive style and a rigid formula that made all 52 episodes seem almost the same as they rolled along. Speed would enter a race, bad guys would show up, they would stop the cars at one point to fight, and then continue on with the good guys usually winning. The show was simple, brightly colored, and had one of the catchiest theme songs of all time.
Speed Racer the film had been kicked around as a Hollywood project for decades, with Alfonso Cuaron attached at one point as director with Johnny Depp in the lead role. Urban legend has it the Wachowski brothers decided to take on the material because they wanted to make a movie for the kids in their family, and it's easy to see that in the final product. The big screen version retains the innocence of the cartoon in color, character, and plotting. The Wachowskis' decided to shoot the film using a blinding amount of CGI and green screen processes to make an over the top anime style with tons of hot bright colors. Speed Racer is a kaleidoscope of pinball hues and mystical video game physics revolving around a simple story. You've never seen anything like this and, given the box office failure, it's doubtful anyone will ever try to replicate the idea again. You have to admire what the directors were shooting for, but in the end it didn't satisfy audiences enough to inspire them.
Where the Wachowskis fail is Speed Racer comes out of the gate not hip enough to bring in the Generation X fans who grew up on the anime, but it's too convoluted to hold the attention of young viewers who just want the video game thrills. It is far too long at 135 minutes to satisfy the intended audience, since older fans will see it as too light while younger audiences will see it as tiresome. The unique visuals dazzle, but it's hard swallowing the endless barrage of candy color when the characters are so one dimensional. The film is a visually stunning sugar rush that goes on way too long. To add to the mismanaged tone, the races themselves are so over the top confusing that action sequences are rendered in a blinding, messy rush of incoherence. The use of artifice makes the proceedings seem inconsequential as we see dozens of crashes, but hardly any real world physics to make them feel like they have any impact. The actors do what they can, but they are given only simple stereotypes to play. Even the moments where they try to infuse real feeling come across as fake as the flying computer cars. It's almost an insult to see Susan Sarandon or Christina Ricci try to pass their dialogue off as heartfelt. The English thespian playing the big bad corporate guy just settles for doing a Tim Curry impersonation. It's an actor's nightmare as they are swallowed by animation swirling around them like a hurricane which only wants to throw them around in the wind.
If there is any bright spot to recommend a viewing or purchase of Speed Racer it would be to see the over the top visuals. The directors have made a mess of the narrative, but these guys know how to guarantee the film looks unlike anything you've ever seen. The Wachowskis have one-upped George Lucas and advanced what can be done with CGI by inserting live actors in to a film where there are only three or four actual sets. It borders on brilliance just for the staggering amount of visual eye candy on display at any given moment. It looks a lot like what Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy was gunning for in 1990.
On DVD, Speed Racer looks great, and the crazy, cool visuals from the big screen are retained faithfully enough thanks to a gorgeous transfer. The hyper color palette pushes the format to the edge, but there's hardly any bleeding or digital artifacts to ruin the spectacle. The five channel surround sound mix puts you right in the middle of the races, and speakers are fully engaged by the cars and swelling music. The only downside to the DVD presentation is there are only two supplemental pieces for extras, and they are insubstantial. We get a cute on-set documentary from young actor Paulie Litt who takes us on a tour of the sets and green screen rooms. Also on the disc is a profile of all the racers and their cars which just spits out a lot of pseudo science about the engines and gadgets. There is no in-depth exploration of the cast or crew, and the directors never show up to discuss the project. Like the feature it holds, the DVD looks and sounds dazzling with no substance behind it. A BluRay version is released on the same day, and I imagine its transfer will surpass this one. Seems high definition would be the best choice to enjoy what Speed Racer excels at, but the DVD does the job in an admirable way.
Speed Racer is technically beautiful, but it misses the mark when it comes to the human element. The Wachowskis have supplied the material with an inventive visual style, but there's a paper thin plot coupled with one dimensional characters. The candy coated color explosion doesn't succeed in engaging viewers though it certainly does dazzle. The DVD package is technically up to par, and no doubt the preparation for BluRay paid off for the standard format as well. Picture and sound for this one are excellent, and there are no audio visual concerns about the presentation. What is missing are supplemental materials that explain the film, and what the makers were shooting for with this concept. All we get is a family friendly feature, and extras aimed at a kid level. Speed Racer seems to be designed for children, and the disc here is no different in execution. Check it out if you want to see a cartoon spring to life with all the limitations of its original medium. Perhaps they were too successful in capturing the formula of the show. I half expected the actors to open their mouths and freeze while their dialogue came spilling out. The difference is Speed Racer the television show was only 20 minutes per episode, and shown between other kid fare early in the morning as pure escapist fluff to go with sugary cereal. Speed Racer the movie is over two hours long, and could take you from breakfast bowl to hot pocket for lunch to get through. It's a beautiful drag, and fine for kids and fans who have long attention spans.
Guilty of speeding along without a care or a plot. Speed Racer is too
long but dazzles with CGI.
Review content copyright © 2008 Brett Cullum; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 135 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* "Spritle in The Big League" Set Tour with Palie Litt
* "Speed Racer: Supercharged!" Profile of Racers and Tracks
* Official Speed Racer Site
* Cinema Verdict Review