Little does DVD Verdict know that Reviewer X is really Judge Mike Rubino.
As champion of the West Side Grunters and Groaners I promise you are in for a lot of groaning!—Pops Racer
Speed Racer is a series that is ingrained into every boy's childhood, whether it be when the show first came to American shores in the late '60s or its resurgence in the early '90s. And while fans may be mixed on the recent film adaptation, there's no denying the original anime series hasn't changed a bit. After releasing the show in individual volumes over the past couple years, Lionsgate has taken all 52 of the fast-talking, car-wrecking, completely campy episodes and shoved them into a giant, metal Mach 5.
Facts of the Case
Speed Racer debuted on American television in 1967 and became one of the first successful Japanese anime shows in the States. The show, which was translated and edited for American audiences, was originally based off the manga by Tatsuo Yoshida.
In case you know nothing about the series, here's a fast-talking summary:
Speed Racer is the fastest and best racer in the world. He drives a race car called the Mach 5, which was built by his dad, Pops Racer. Pops builds the world's best racing cars, and he's built himself a great reputation at the same time. Speed competes in every race with the support of his friend Trixie, and his younger brother Spritle. Usually Spritle hides in the Mach 5's trunk with his pet monkey Chim-Chim. It's dangerous for Spritle to hide in the trunk, especially during these races which often take place in the mountains or on other dangerous and deadly tracks. Along the way, Speed is also helped by the mysterious Racer X. Little does Speed know that Racer X is actually his brother, Rex, who ran away from home years ago.
Speed Racer is a ridiculous show. The plotlines are a mad mix of corporate politics and high-stakes racing. The villains have bizarre names like "Tongue Blaggard" and "Ace Deucey." Everyone talks in a Morse code pattern of run-on sentences and gasps. Oh yeah, and the show is filled with vicious car wrecks resulting in (I assume) countless deaths. But for as ludicrous as all this sounds—especially for a children's show—I assure you these are all very good things.
I first became accustomed to the show when it aired on MTV in the '90s. It was a funny diversion; a window into the strange world of early Japanese animation. At least I knew where it was coming from. When kids were watching it in the '60s, few knew it was an import. This is largely due to the Americanization the show went through at the talented hands of Peter Fernandez. He wrote and directed the show, as well as provided the voices for Speed and Racer X. The plots are similar to their Japanese counterparts, but the dialogue is totally Western. Fernandez was forced to write and record as much dialogue as he could to fit the animated mouths of the characters, hence the series' trademark "fast-talking" that rivals the MicroMachine Guy.
Speed Racer, like many Japanese cartoons of the time, lasted just one 52-episode season. The series certainly has some standout episodes that define the Speed Racer experience, and there are hardly any stinkers. Everything is cut from the same outrageous cloth. While each episode has a balance of on and off the track action, things don't always center around a big race. As the series progressed, focus shifted slightly away from the two-part epic race tales like "The Great Plan" and "The Race Against the Mammoth Car" to diversions like "The Car Hater" and "The Supersonic Car." Incredibly, the show never feels dull or repetitive, despite the liberal amount of recycled animation. This is largely due to the colorful cast of villains, cars, and locales in each episode. And for as confounding as the cyclical dialogue may seem at times, it's also occasionally clever and layered. If anything, the show will make you laugh at its audaciousness.
The animation is cheap, sure, but it's not without ambition. Its influence on American animation is undeniable. One could even argue that it's had a profound effect on framing and camera movement in cinema as well. The characters range from crudely drawn to wonderfully rendered, and each episode contains some pretty surprising instances of creativity. For example, in a very early episode, a dangerous villain in sunglasses is harassing Pops in the garage. There's a jump cut to Speed entering; the camera then zooms out to reveal that the shot of Speed is actually reflecting off the sunglasses of the villain. It's something that's done quite often in film, but to be seen in a rough '60s cartoon certainly caught my attention. Not all of the cool animation is as dramatic as this, though. Sometimes it's as simple as a rotating perspective or a freeze frame in the middle of a fiery wreck. Part of me wonders what this show would have been like with a bigger budget, but, at the same time, its cheapness adds to its charm.
If you were ever a fan of the show, I can't think of a better way to snag the whole series in one fell swoop. I do need to point out that if you've already purchased the five individually released volumes, there's no need to pick this up; Speed Racer: The Complete Classic Collection is merely a re-packaging of those discs. This means that, aside from the disc labels, there's little uniformity in the way the discs are set up. The first disc has a neat dossier feature with plenty of info about the series and its characters. The second disc has cool little icons denoting what villains and cars are in each episode, and even lets you skip to those specific scenes to see a clip. These features fall by the wayside in the later discs, even though the menus themselves become fancier. And of course, each disc's menu still denotes the volume number from the individual releases.
Despite all this, the video and audio quality is pretty standard throughout. The show was cheaply made, and survives with some major picture issues. The video is often grainy, faded, or scratched, and looks as if little has been done to revive it. If they did re-master all of these episodes, then this is as good as they're going to get. The same goes for the sound, which is decent, except when it comes to the internal monologues of the characters. Then the dialogue becomes distorted and fuzzy. The show's score, however, remains a jazzy and impressive aspect of the series. And if you're a real die-hard fan, I do have to note that these episodes are the re-mastered early '90s versions, after Speed Racer Enterprises was formed and bought the rights off of Trans-Lux. The only real difference is that the logo in the opening credits is the newer fancier one, instead of the old-school white one.
What is new in this set, aside from the sweet tin car and heavy cardboard booklet that holds the DVDs, is the sixth disc of bonus features. Sadly, these features aren't as thorough or as cool as I had hoped—a featurette on the history of Speed Racer; a making-of featurette about Speed Racer: The Next Generation; and a bonus episode of The Next Generation. "The History of Speed Racer" is the most interesting of the three, and features interviews with folks in charge of Speed Racer Enterprises as well as Peter Fernandez. It gives good insight into the regionalization of the series and its unique success in the American market. Sadly, the whole video only lasts about 10 minutes. The making-of The Next Generation is pretty lame. It's clear this show is a cash-in on the new live action movie, and this featurette fails to make it look appealing at all. To further these suspicions, simply watch the included episode, which for some reason is episode four, rather than episode one. The show is a typical American cartoon that lacks much of what made the original sing. And the computer generated race cars look about as good as The Incredible Crash Dummies cartoon. Anyone else remember that? Anyone? Bueller?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For as cool as the idea of storing these DVDs inside of the Mach 5 may sound, I wish the car casing was little more than a metal shell. This thing might as well be a chocolate covered pretzel tin. It isn't quite cool enough to display prominently, and it's too bulking to slide onto a DVD shelf. It's a nice thought, but they should have spent a little more time on the design.
If the hype around the film adaptation of Speed Racer has you jonesing for the classic anime, this is the best set you can get. All 52 episodes in a neat package, so you can show your friends the astounding "Car Hater" episode any time you want. The show's ambitious-but-cheap design still shines as a hysterically odd beacon of late-'60s animation.
But buyer beware, if you already own the five individual volumes of the series, there's no need to pick this set up. The discs are exactly the same and the new bonus features just aren't worth it.
Guilty, I say! Don't you believe me when I say this show is guilty? It's clearly guilty, just look at it! Guilty!
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Scales of Justice
• The History of Speed Racer
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