Sunday, June 12, 2011

Speed Racer (2008)


Based off of an anime from the 1960s that had simplistic stories, simplistic animation you really had to question the sanity of the Wachowski Brothers. I mean I know they love anime. Their work in The Matrix trilogy more than proves that. But when it comes right down to this, who was clamoring for a Speed Racer movie?


Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is one of the best racecar drivers in the business. His whole family is into racing with his father Pops Racer (John Goodman) building cars for his son to race. Things seem to be going along just peachy for Speed and his family until bazillionare Royalton (Roger Allam) shows up with an offer to sponsor Speed in the upcoming racing circuit. Speed it tempted by the amazing offer, but wishes to stay independent. This chaps Royalton’s coiffed hair and so he vows vengeance.

But things take a turn for the shady when Inspector Detector (Benno Furmann) shows up with an offer for Speed. Seems like there is a criminal conspiracy at the heart of the racing circuit and Detector wants to bust it. With the help of Trixie (Christina Ricci), Spritle (Paulie Litt) and Chim Chim the chip, Speed finds himself in a series of deadly races, with Royalton’s cronies and a mob boss gunning for him. But at his back is the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) who may or may not be Speeds long lost brother Rex. It all boils down to a hyper color adventure that fires on all cylinders.

Good Points:

  • Amazing visuals capture the feel of a live action cartoon
  • An energetic and lively score by Michael Giacchino
  • Keeps true to the spirit of the ‘60s cartoon

Bad Points:

  • Runs a bit too long and over complicates what should be a simple story
  • Pushes everything over the top – visuals, acting, story, music
  • As far from The Matrix as you can get


Even if the creation of the movie is suspect, the final result is really one of the most visually impressive I’ve seen. Every element is designed to create the atmosphere of a cartoon and it works wonderfully. Had the running time been streamlined and the story less complicated this could have been a winner. As it stands, it’s worth seeking out for fans of animation and visual pop.

Scores (out of 5)

Visuals: 5

Sound: 5

Acting: 3

Script: 3

Music: 5

Direction: 3

Entertainment: 4

Total: 4

In Depth Review

Oddly had this movie been released in the mid 1990s it would have been better received. For some reason, MTV started showing episodes of the Speed Racer cartoon, bad dub and all, as a kind of ironic bit of programming. This was back when they used to show Liquid Television: a mix of unusual and experimental animation that brought us Aeon Flux. At this time, some techno group going by the name Alpha Team used the Speed Racer theme song, lines from the dub and a bit of dance fueled beats to create a Speed Racer single. The radio edit was a bit of ‘90s fun, but the unrated sexy edit was a bit of comic genius. Using the many assorted back breaths, gasps and groans straight from the ‘60s dub, Speed Racer put the X back in Racer X.

A few years later, the fledgling Cartoon Network would show reruns of Speed Racer in all its glory. Usually right before or after Space Ghost Coast to Coast. I mean if there was a time for a Speed Racer revival this was it.

Instead the Wachowski brothers waited until 2008 to unleash the film. I do remember hearing about it being in development for a few years before that (with Johnny Depp attached at some point). Upon its release the film bombed hard and any goodwill the Wachowski brothers had remaining after the less then warm reception the Matrix sequels received all but vanished.

I guess if your expectations were for something along the lines of The Matrix I can see how this movie with its candy colors and cartoon dialogue could disappoint you. But I can’t see how anyone who knows anything about Speed Racer and enjoyed the show a little beyond its ironic merits could not find something fun about this film.

It’s hard to describe the film’s visual approach other than to say it was true to the bright colors, outrageous angles and rapid approach of the cartoon. The races defy the laws of physics and hurtle by with insane speed. But the Wachoski brothers keep the action understandable and clear with plenty of long shots to establish who is who and where they are on the course.

The acting follows suit. No one here is going for subtle. Its all big and over the top acting that’s bound to grate on some people, especially when you have a cast featuring Susan Sarandon and Roger Allam who are typically seen in dramatic fare. And some of the casting is inspired. John Goodman is perfect both in visual appearance and attitude as Pops Racer. Mathew Fox has the dashing good looks and mystery of Racer X down. Christina Ricci makes the character of Trixie that perfect mix of cute, spunky and cool that you rarely see outside of a Japanese cartoon. Frankly Hirsch has the most dull part as Speed Racer, who is just a good guy with a heart of gold. At the same time I enjoyed the change of having a hero who does the right thing because he believes it, and doesn’t have to be full of angst and darkness (unlike Batman or Perseus of the remade Clash of the Titans).

Then there’s Spritle and Chim Chim, two characters who are obviously catering to the single digit age crowd. Yes, they are annoying and superfluous, but guess what – they were annoying and superfluous in the original anime too! I did enjoy the scene where they envisioned themselves in their own anime complete with bad dubbing and hilarious camera angles.

The music by Michael Giacchio is something else. Giacchino is rapidly becoming one of my favorite composers for this age. He can inject energy into all of his work and when it comes to something like Speed Racer he just nails it. Giacchino not only uses the original theme from the 1960s series as his base for the music, but he injects a 1960s style into the whole score. Sometimes it gets a little bit like John Barry’s work in James Bond, sometimes it sounds like something you’d hear in I Spy or The Avengers but it always fits. Sadly some of his score is lost in the sound effects, but I got a huge kick out of hearing the Speed Racer theme performed by a full chorus in a triumphant style at the end of the film. 60s cheese never sounded so noble.

The movie clocks in at 135 minutes, and really there is no need for that. Sadly the Wachowski brothers attempt to add more depth than necessary to an idea that should be a simple blast of summer fun. Instead of one amazing race, we get three. Instead of one subplot, we get five. Instead of one main villain we get four. It just feels bloated, and when you have such an over the top visual aesthetic, it becomes overwhelming and overbearing. It’s just too much of a good thing.

While Speed’s story arc does require a race in each of its three acts, the fact that they are all so huge and over the top makes the audience punch drunk by the end. As amazing as the final Grand Prix is, you’re just tired of the whole thing by that point. And that’s mostly because the Casa Cristo road rally is so much fun, it really feels like it should be the climax of the film. It’s got the most racers, the most variation in settings, the most amazing driving and the added twist of a full on fistfight in the middle. Really there is nowhere to go after that race, and the rest of the film turns into a bit of a slog. With a leaner meaner script the fun would have been the perfect length instead of a bloated but pretty mess.

I’ve seen some folks complain that none of the racing in the film done with any reality at all. They are missing the point. Speed Racer is not about real driving action. Heck, even Pixar’s Cars is more realistic than this. But this movie is embracing its cartoon roots, and that means that you get crazy car action wacky racer style. There was no way this was going to be done with real cars (especially when they stayed so true to the car design used in the series). Yes its all green screen, but that was done to give maximum control to the Wachoski Brothers and their special effects team. The final results look too amazing to complain about.

Speed Racer has its faults, but I also think people were expecting a very different movie than what the Wachowski brothers set out to make. This is all about making a live action cartoon with a whiz bang feeling of fun behind it. It’s bright, and loud and smiling the whole way. If you can, give it a spin and just enjoy it for what it is. And if you have a Blu-ray player, the film looks even more impressive in high definition. Go Speed Racer! Go!


  1. I'd wondered about this one, and have it in the NF queue. I know it had it's detractors, but I've heard others say it's a lot of fun. So I've got to check it out.

    1. I've seen this flick a couple times after writing this review, and I still really enjoy it. The visuals are something else, just amazing. And if you have any familiarity with the 60s version of the anime, than you'll find a lot to enjoy. Michael Giacchino's score for this film is one of my favorites in the last few years.

      The only downside is that it is so long. It still feels like that road rally should have been the finale. Oh well, still a blast. Hope you like it!