The Wachowski brothers’ take on Speed Racer opens with a rotating kaleidoscope of colors, seizing the WB logo as if Willy Wonka were backstage tugging the ropes of the curtain himself. This jolt of candy isn’t just pre-feature window dressing, though, it’s a warning; a Surgeon General’s foretelling of the visuals to come. As prismatic as the display of treats adorning the concession stand window, Speed Racer is a visually assaulting live action cartoon that accomplishes something the Brothers have been aiming for for a long time.
There’s a lot of care invested in crafting Speed’s world right from the start. We’re immediately introduced to the Hot Wheels meets F-Zero raceways, full of nearly unmanageable loops, twists and bottomless canyons that would spell death were it not for a magical bubble eject system included in every vehicle. The narrative frequently mixes Speed’s races with those of his dearly departed brother, Rex Racer, and Speed deals with living up to his expectations and the pressure of surpassing them throughout.
His primary concern, however, is Royalton Industries, owned by the sinister Mr. Royalton (played to hilariously villainous heights by Roger Allam). Royalton wants Speed on his team, and he promises him and his family all of the benefits one would expect from a super powerful corporation. Once Speed rejects this offer (because he’s the hero, duh), the truth is revealed. He learns the sad truth behind past races, slathered in his mind with hero worship, but ultimately rigged and decided well before the first flag was ever waved. And now that he’s on Royalton’s bad side, winning a deadly cross country race known as the Crucible and, ultimately, the Grand Prix, will be more difficult than ever.
Speed still has some power on his end, though. Aside from the help his family and friends provide,from Sparky’s expert mechanic work to Trixie’s eye in the sky helicopter spotting, he also has the assistance of the enigmatic Racer X. Once all of this is set up, the remainder of Speed Racer is almost all action. The races are as over-the-top as can be—cars are constantly flipping over one another, traps spring from around every turn—it never looks “real,” but it always looks fun.
Even the movie’s transitions are constantly loaded with style. Normal exchanges of dialogue become merry-go-rounds as faces pan across the screen and make way for shifting angles and dramatic close-ups. Then, just when you’re expecting more racing, or more intensely villainous scheming, you get black-clad ninja attacks and full Racer family martial arts scenes. It’ll either send you into an epileptic fit or have your eyes popping for more. Maybe both.
All of this works because—on the surface at least—it seems like the actors really “get it.” I mean, it’s always hard to tell if Rain is taking himself too seriously or not (he probably is), but the performances are very much in line with the cartoon world in which they exist. The whole Racer collective, rounded up like a classic American family in their technicolor household, really hits the mark.
It’s no exaggeration to say that watching Speed Racer on Blu-ray is an intense experience for the eyes. Even if you’ve already seen it, this is the way to go. It’s the perfect showcase for the format. Vivid colors, eye-popping action, and transitions loaded with speed lines and other wild effects adopted from the animation toolbox; the only thing it needs now is a packed-in pair of 3D glasses.
I can understand why a lot of people were turned off by Speed Racer when it came out in the theaters to a woefully low turnout. As a fan of the flick, though, I think it’s important for everyone to enter with the right mindset. Speed Racer is corny as hell, the action is absolutely ridiculous, and the plot is as paper-thin as the animation cels from which it was summoned, and that’s precisely why it works.
Rather than shunning the source material for some kind of film-appropriate coating of black leather and all-too-serious storytelling, Speed Racer is first and foremost a cartoon. It’s definitely the most successful attempt at mimicking the style in a live-action format, even if its performance at the box office was anything but. Hopefully as Speed Racer ages it will be remembered more for these accomplishments than for the lackluster feedback it initially received. Fans of the original cartoon should get a kick out of it, as should anyone else that’s willing to sit back and pretend it’s saturday morning for just two more hours.
Studio/Company: Warner Brothers
Available: Now (DVD/Blu-ray)