Lionsgate // 1966 // 300 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // July 29th, 2004
He's a demon on wheels!
It's surely safe to assume that every red-blooded American boy growing up in the 1960s had at least a partial penchant for fast cars and crazy cartoons. After all, Hot Wheels were the outta-sight toy, and no dude-in-training failed to drool when Rat Fink comics combined monsters with motorcars to create their exaggerated caricatures of vehicular insanity. Long before the price of gas skyrocketed and performance was replaced with efficiency, the mindset of the pre-Me Decade male was steeped in a carburetor-and-crankcase conceptualization that rivaled sex as a primary concern (okay...not really).
So it's no wonder that a strange Japanimation TV show about a young man, his racing car, and his unusual adventures became a classic cult phenomenon. Though many will probably deny it, a lot of aesthetics were altered by the eccentric drawing and directing style of this Asian animated wonder (yours truly is guilty as charged). Speed Racer may, today, seem like a strange amalgamation of bad dubbing, rapid-fire dialogue lunacy, completely wacky storylines, and a unique, oblique mise-en-scéne that dismissed continual shots of movement, adapting a more Eisensteinian approach to action. Mixing many quick cuts over the course of a single sequence, Speed Racer suggested more than it showed, allowing both the editing and the images used to approximate the rapid-fire pace of car chases and fist fights. After releasing the first 11 episodes on a rubber-tire-encased Special Edition DVD last year, Artisan / Lions Gate has opened up the vaults and released the next 12 installments of Master Racer's riotous adventures. And things are getting very weird in the world of the Go Team and the magical Mach 5.
If you haven't done so already, this critic recommends a quick trip over to the opinions of DVD Verdict's very own Dr. Mike Pinsky and his review of the Speed Racer: Limited Edition. Speed Racer Limited Collector's Edition, Volume Two picks up where that set left off, giving us the further flummoxing adventures of young race-car hotshot Speed, his dopey, drippy girlfriend Trixie, his best friend Sparky, and the rest of the entire post-nuclear Racer family: Pops, Mom, Spritle, and Chim-Chim. For those unfamiliar with the show, Speed is the star, an idealistic young man who believes in the competing claims of total sportsmanship along with winning at all costs. Trixie is his jealous hanger-on harpy who constantly admonishes Speed for even thinking about other girls. Sparky is the spunky junior mechanic who is disgruntled over the fact that he never gets enough credit for the Mach 5's performance. Pops is a typical dad with dozens of years of race circuit experience, while Mom is a typical housewife and concerned parent.
And then there are youngest brother Spritle and Chim-Chim, his pet monkey. These notorious troublemakers are constantly stealing away aboard planes, trains, and ships to travel along to places to which they haven't been invited. They are a couple of human -- make that human and simian -- garbage cans who can't stop filling their faces long enough to sense trouble and/or danger. While they tend to be helpful, some of the time, they seem to function as full-out slapstick farce to lighten the dangerous tone of the show.
Every episode on this new Speed Racer DVD is broken up into two installments. And sticking with the bifurcated concept, this collection can also be divided in half. On one side are the serious action-adventure installments, shows in which a flimsy premise is used to tack on all manner of car chases and fisticuffs. Then there are the outright bizarre segments, stories where completely weird and surreal circumstances occur within or complement the race setting. It's these madcap wonders that make a contemporary visit to Speed Racer fresh and fun.
Watching static animated concept cars careen and crash around a moving backdrop is occasionally dull. But around every corner is the possibility of something dopey, or better yet...disaster! Speed Racer celebrated death like no other cartoon would or could. Indeed, animated series today wouldn't touch the fatality toll from one of these shows with a pointed political correctness stick. Add in monkey/boy hijinks, a great deal of over-the-top treachery, and enough rapid-fire lines of dialogue to keep your head spinning for days, and Speed Racer becomes a ripe, ridiculous addiction -- something you feel compelled to watch because of its mind-boggling properties.
Looking at each installment individually, the peculiar parameters of the show become more apparent:
* "Race for Revenge" starts this set on a very odd note. A robot driver uses his X-3 mobile to run various drivers off the road, while droning on in an incredibly eerie voice, "Melange still lives!" Although the whole conspiracy issue is intriguing, it cannot replace the bizarre automaton antics here.
* "The Desperate Desert Race" is where the eccentricity really begins. Speed is off to race in a Sahara-like locale when an uppity Arab sideswipes the Mach 5. Of course, it turns out this snotty sheik is some manner of prince, and his tiny, insignificant country is embroiled in some method of complicated rebellion. Naturally, Speed steps in and all manner of crosses and double-crosses are played out.
* "The Fire Race" is just plain, out-and-out bizarre. Starting in a UN-like setting called the League of Countries where the nation of Kapecapek is trying to keep its primitive borders closed, and ending with a race inside an active volcano that claims the lives of 50 participants (50!), the incredibly warped imagery (a leopard and a driver each gets eaten by a school of piranha) and leaps in logic make this episode good, goofy fun. But can someone please explain the sovereignty issues to me?
* "The Girl Daredevil" offers still more mind-blowing visual surrealism (Chim-Chim infiltrates a circus and gets his monkey butt kicked by a gorilla) on top of another twisted story about an ancient treasure and a weird criminal who wears a clown-suit disguise throughout the first half of the story. Add in Trixie's Tourette-like envy, the awkward underwater sequences, and the lion tamer finale, and you've got one kooky carnival ride.
* "The Fastest Car on Earth" could be used by any political action group to proclaim a serious hidden message of drug use in episodes of Speed Racer. There haven't been this many green-smoke-induced psychotropics since Jerry Garcia headed out to the big jam session in the sky. Otherwise, we're back to basic car-on-car action here.
* "The Mach 5 vs. the Mach 5" ends our DVD with the introduction of Mr. Cumulus, one of the odder madmen in the menagerie of maniacs plotting against Speed during the show's run. With his green wrestling mask look and indecipherable plan for world domination (it has something to do with a ray gun that heats things to death), he's the only bright spot in what is, otherwise, just another vehicular pursuit story.
Overall, this second set of Speed Racer episodes spells out very clearly why the show was such a success the first time around...and why its appeal will perhaps be limited to those nostalgia-minded fans only. There is very little here for today's sugarcoated cartoon-craving kiddies. Speed Racer offers long, complicated narratives with far too many expositional facts piled on top of each other for the Fruit Rollup-addled brain to appreciate. Kids may like the pretty explosions and high body count (there are also a couple of animated firefights herein that Quentin Tarantino should be borrowing from very soon), but these stories are not the simple celebrations of cerebral stasis most modern kidvid aims to cater to. We have long since forgotten what it is like to allow our developing males the chance to live a boy's adventure tale, fretting they'd grow up fueled with testosterone instead of salient sensitivity. Speed Racer recalls those days in scary, action-packed platitudes. While there will be a current collection of bratlings who get in tune with this horsepower pageant -- even with all of its elements of the silly and surreal -- anime aficionados and childhood-grasping old farts (yours truly included) will probably end up being the sole serious audience for this jarring Japanese lesson in solving problems through pedal-to-the-metal methodology. Speed Racer is enjoyable and freakish, but it really is an icon of its time.
Artisan / Lions Gate issues this DVD collection in a very nice package (the fold-out cardboard case cover has a hidden button that, when pressed, lights up the headlights on the Mach 5 and plays a snippet of the theme song) with excellent visuals and audio. The 1.33:1 full screen transfer is perfect, meaning that you can see all the cartoon cel faults, optical printing mistakes, and animation missteps in frame-by-frame clarity. The colors and the details are fine, but watching the ghostly sprocket hole images swirl around the sides (a sign of the handmade quality of the show) can be distracting. Sound-wise, Speed Racer is tinny and distorted, just like we remember it. It captures the hurried-up English dubbing perfectly, and renders even the most misguided attempt at subtlety aurally supersonic. In some ways the overmodulation raises the high-risk stakes of each show by pressing the sound effects right into your midbrain.
As for bonuses, there are a few nice additions here. The menu screens have little accessible icons which provide insight into the show's Asian roots, hidden symbols used throughout the show (and what they stand for), as well as thumbnail sketches of important characters with access to a scene showing them in action. There are also several Spritle and Chim-Chim buttons, giving us instant access to the best brat-and-baboon footage in the show. While a commentary, interview, or documentary would have been nice, there is still some very clever added context to this disc.
Certain shows spark a kind of instant recall for the days and times in which they existed. Speed Racer is such a series. While by today's standards it is one gratuitously violent ode to concrete oval sporting and the gang-wrecking Grand Prix, it also contains a great deal of imagination and intrigue. If you're curious about the basic elements of anime, how the genre got its start and standards, just take a gander at Speed Racer: Limited Collector's Edition, Volume Two and you'll soon get the picture. It's a cheery, cheesy classic.
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 300 Minutes
Release Year: 1966
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Information Screens About Selected Characters and Objects
* Speed Racer Fan Site
* Sparky's Home Page and Episode Guide