Warner Bros. Pictures (May 9 2008), Warner Home Video (September 16 2008), single disc, 135 mins plus supplements, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, Rated PG, Retail: $28.98


The classic Japanese animated racing adventure show gets suited and booted up to big-screen, live-action proportions, in a lavish and surprisingly entertaining movie that should provide high enjoyment for non-fans but not offend long-time followers either.

The Sweatbox Review:

If the Wachowski Brothers (Andy and Larry) took us into the blackest of the dark for The Matrix then Speed Racer is their rainbow colored antidote. And it could well be because I knew little to nothing of the source material from which they have derived their film that I had so much fun enjoying it! With a bit of a European background, I’ve always kept my eye on the comics and animated output of France, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands regions, albeit from a distance, but I’ve never really been able to plug into the Japanese manga and anime culture, primarily for the go-nowhere or too far out alien sci-fi storylines of the comics or the staccato, unimpressive animation in the majority of their television and feature endeavors.


There have been exceptions, of course, but my (slow) warming to such landmarks as Akira, Steamboy and the Miyazaki pictures have mostly been through more mainstream commercial releases of those films, and not through my own digging into this material, which I find hit and miss and too often a disappointment to set aside any real time in which to discover the gems. Therefore, Tatsuo Yoshida’s almost iconic 1967 series (which beat Wacky Races to screens by just over a year) was only really known to me through reputation and a fairly recent push for a DVD box set that, like Astro Boy, passed me by. It’s shameful to have to admit it, but my drawing closer to the originals of these properties has more to do with the fact that I’ve been exposed to them through such entities as this live-action, Western take. I’ve no idea how hard-core fans found this Speed Racer film, but I can’t see a lot in it to disappoint that audience, even if it seems they didn’t show up to support the film in theaters.

Indeed, it was at an screening so almost empty that it may as well been a “private” showing that I myself saw the film, still totally unprepared for what was about to splash out on the screen in front of me. I’d seen a teaser, read a couple of reviews that slated the onslaught of sound and imagery, and been prepared for something quite terrible and noisy. The draw of the Wachowskis didn’t do much to pull me in, my having been ultimately unimpressed with their second chapter of The Matrix or the endings to the third and their production of V For Vendetta, which crumbled to its knees after an absolutely brilliantly masterminded and intelligent beginning. That they had shifted attentions to what was ostensibly “a kids’ film” intrigued me, as did the cast and the subject matter. Whatever the circumstances, I sat down to watch Speed Racer and I came out humming the ridiculously infectious theme tune and unexpectedly singing its praises.


An over the top assault on the senses, I’m still perplexed as to how Speed Racer crashed and burned so badly on theatrical release (making less than $45 million in the US on a $120m budget). While not a truly groundbreaking film in this day and age (the likes of Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, Sin City and 300 having perfected special effects stage moviemaking in recent years), Speed Racer excels at putting its pedal to the metal and raising the bar of such ventures. It’s also the first film to really ape the highly stylised approach the Japanese bring to their visuals: the Wachowskis famously such fans that they created a whole animated vision of The Matrix (released to home video as The Animatrix) to supplement that feature franchise. In what reminded me of the editing of such films as diverse as Forrest Gump, with its backwards and forwards flashbacks, and Ang Lee’s comic panels come to life feel of his flawed but underrated Hulk, the Wachowskis here duplicate what could be called the clichés of Japanimation but that feel super-fresh and innovative in a live-action film.


It’s actually super-clever, too, and on a Back To The Future Part II level, if films such as these were small art house efforts, their flashbacks, flash-forwards and, in Speed Racer’s case, a combination of the two on screen at the same time, would be hailed as awesome achievements in cinematic history. It’s also just as amazing that in a film as simply packed to the brim with movement, either visually or in its storytelling, as Speed Racer, that it does find time to have a real heart and well-written dialog, as well as the prerequisite plot twists – even in a movie as “uncomplicated” as this one, it never speaks down to its intended age range and actually treats them with the intelligence to understand what’s going on: I’m not kidding when I surmise that most “adults” and critics probably didn’t enjoy the film because they couldn’t keep up with it, and rather than notice the smart things in play, couldn’t be bothered than do anything other than slate it.


That’s unfortunate and unfair, since Speed Racer – as has been proven by a rash of names that “should know better” coming out in support of the film between its theatrical and disc debuts – rewards as a filmgoing experience in spades. For a film concerned with speed, it certainly races along, filling in our hero Speed’s backstory at the same time it sets up the current plot (about corporate sponsorship corruption on the racing circuit, the value of your folks, and how the little guy – the Racers’ family business – can come out on top in face of such grand competition from a ruthless and increasingly dangerously desperate and seemingly untouchable conglomerate). All during this, Speed Racer hops back and forth to introduce Speed as a racing-obsessed youngster, spurred on by proving he can fill the shoes of his deceased older brother (killed offscreen), by way of multiple split screens, anime-styled wipes, character transitions, audacious camera perspectives and primary colors that literally pulsate off the screen.


And yet it all works handsomely, the simplicity (in a very good sense) and clarity of the performances being the power behind why the humans – and one chimp I may add! – never end up feeling swamped amongst all the whizz-bang technology on show in front or behind the camera. The versatile Emile Hirsch (in the title role vacated by Johnny Depp in an earlier abandoned concept) displays the fact that he’s going to go on to become one of the best actors of his generation to look out for, seemingly forgoing the glitzy Hollywood lifestyle to find decent roles in which he can give strong performances (the better than average teen comedy The Girl Next Door, Sean Penn’s Into The Wild), turning in a wholly believable character here, given the special effects circumstances. Even better – and providing the film with such a concrete grounding that without him I don’t think the film would have worked at all – is John Goodman, really really good here as Pops Racer, the inventor of the legendary Mach 5 speedster who is anxious his younger son will accept an invitation to join merciless rivals Royalton Motors and end up on the corporate and literal scrap heap as his older son Rex had done.


After being sorely tempted by the promised high-life, Speed ultimately chooses family over financial gain, going up head to head against Royalton’s now out for the win at any cost opponents as well as the mysterious Racer X (Lost’s Matthew Fox, filling in for Keanu Reeves, who declined) who could be on anyone’s side. The races themselves don’t always work: at times there’s a feeling that one has been removed from a film and is watching someone else play a high-tech video game, or that Disney/Pixar’s Cars has been super-turbo charged. I would also suggest that the film suffers from one racing sequence too many, a cut that may be needed from a plot point of view, but would have equally brought the film in under a more audience-friendly two-hour mark. However, when the film hits the open road, for a Wacky Races, anything goes-style trek across desert, mountains and other dangerous driving conditions, Speed Racer really shifts into high gear, providing an exhilarating spectacle (my only wish being that the film had ended on such an expansive note instead of returning to the more confined track for a final victory lap).


Wacky Races is a good property to evoke, as Speed Racer does seem to continue a line of hyper-real movies that kick-started in the 1960s alongside the original Yoshida cartoon: Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, The Great Race, Those Daring Young Men In Their Jaunty Jalopies all seem like the granddaddy to this kind of film, though it may have more in tune with the racing histrionics of a Grand Prix, Le Mans or a Death Race 2000, itself only just recently remade and a competitor on the theater tracks against this film. Speed Racer – the film – seems to draw on all these sources, as well as Hot Wheels’ model cars sensibilities and pour the more outrageous elements into the digital melting pot: a sour Brit-type villain you love to hate in Royalton (Roger Allam, though he may as well be Tim Curry), stop-offs along the circuit (including a mad moment of ninja acrobatics in which Pops and mechanic Sparky come into their own), illegal racing tactics (which, truth be told, I wished had been even more outrageous) and some clever quick thinking to outsmart the villains all make their inevitable appearances along the way.


But none of those films seem to place the viewer into the action the way Speed Racer does: for once, all the in your face color and noise is overpowering and overwhelming in a good way, putting you right in pole position. Though we swoop all over the place in terms of story and camera, the non-stop stimulation has never before combined to suggest the spirit of racing or the feeling of what its like to be behind the wheel of such a fantasy creation as the Mach 5. And much of this is also down to the supporting players: non-other than Susan Sarandon as Speed’s apple-pie Mom equals Goodman’s gravitas, while Christina Ricci – as versatile a young actor as Hirsch who is proving herself to be worth watching in any of the many varied projects she performs in – is every bit the bubbly girlfriend confection that Trixie is, and the story needs. In a nice bit of homage, Peter Fernandez, who voiced Speed and Racer X in the American dub of the original series, gets to be a race announcer here, and there’s even a place for Richard Roundtree, of all people.


If anyone has any issues with Speed’s younger brother, played by Paulie Litt, they only need to refer back to the Spritle of the original series, from which Chim Chim the chimp also derives and provides the film with an extra layer of surrealism that reminds us that none of it is real and should be enjoyed as such. Besides, didn’t every little kid in the 60s want a pet like Chim Chim? And wasn’t it de-rigeur for animation producers to provide their child stars with such a pet in likeminded fare? One suspects that had the Wachowskis omitted either character there would have been just as much of a backlash anyway, which makes any argument a moot point: they not only belong in the film, but play a vital part in keeping the hyper-real characters as much a part of their surroundings as the fantastical buildings and vehicles that feature. Indeed, Spritle and Chim Chim’s inclusions are as a direct reference to the 60s feel as Michael Giacchino’s music, perhaps his best since the spy shenanigans of The Incredibles and interweaving the original cartoon’s theme (which gets a funky remix in the closing credits, naturally) expertly throughout the score.


The result of Speed Racer’s lack of audience approval will see it go down as a perceived failure, when it is anything but. It’s a hyperactive, attention deficit disorder movie that genuinely surprises as much as it entertains. In creating its alternate, high-stakes universe (the film doesn’t appear to actually take place in the future per se, but in a darker flipside to Meet The Robinsons’ world, with Hot Wheels styled racetracks promising rollercoaster thrills and near-certain death) full of detail and shiny throbbing color as much as the story’s characters are painted black or white, Speed Racer pulls us in from its opening frames: a dizzying rendering of the traditional Warner Bros. and producing partner Village Roadshow and Silver Pictures’ logos, a psychedelic kaleidoscope effect that opens up the screen and visually states that you’re about to experience something extraordinary. And it just doesn’t stop after that for two straight hours.

Yes…I liked Speed Racer, though this gushing review may set the film up to heightened anticipation that may not be met by everybody. Bear in mind that I went in knowing little – about the classic animated series’ source or this adaptation in general – and had even less expectation for it myself. But I for one was wowed by the standard of filmmaking on show, that it was an intelligently plotted and executed kids’ movie, and that the Wachowskis’ managed to create such an all-round event picture on a budget well under the norm for this kind of thing while not forgoing all (and I mean all) the bells and whistles. Although in one sense the lack of box-office recognition means no tarnishing empty sequels, it may also hold Speed Racer back from promotion at the Oscars, where its visual effects are surely up for a nomination at least, alongside the film’s editing and design. One of the year’s best kept secrets, and seemingly faithful to its original inspiration, long time fans and newbies should both find much to be revved up about. Go, Speed Racer, go!


Is This Thing Loaded?

Unfortunately sporting its lack of box-office clout on its racing stripes, Speed Racer comes to disc in a very flat edition, both on DVD and Blu-ray. The menus are surprisingly static affairs, with only Giacchino’s score playing the classic theme bringing any excitement. The disc revs up with WB’s kitsch Casablanca anti-piracy clip and previews for Fred Claus, the High School Musical-wannabe Another Cinderella Story, Beetlejuice: 20th Anniversary, an Entertainment Industry Foundation anti-smoking spot, and a look at the movie-inspired Speed Racer: The Videogame. Very unfortunately, and a worrying growing trend with some Warners DVDs, this is as close as we get to the film’s promotion: its actual original theatrical trailer seems to have sadly been driven off the disc.


A Spritle In The Big Leagues featurette follows young actor Paulie Litt on his day to day shenanigans around the Speed Racer movie departments, providing as close as this disc gets to a look behind the scenes. Casual viewers will probably enjoy the fast-talking kid’s approach and not think much more about things, but seasoned film fans will be able to pick out more from the glimpses of the shoot on show and work out how various things were achieved, given their no-doubt appreciation for this kind of filmmaking from much more elaborate editions. Pop-Up trivia bubbles add to the layers of info presented in the letterboxed 4:3 piece, meaning that there’s lots to pick up on in its fourteen and a half minutes, though the only thing missing aren’t just the famously camera-shy Wachowskis: Litt’s cap obviously features something that shouldn’t be seen and has been intriguingly blurred out.


Speed Racer: Supercharged! is pure fluff, but like the movie is highly enjoyable, throwaway fluff! A letterboxed 4:3 look into the drivers, cars and racetracks that feature in the movie, it’s all taken seriously, with impressively flashy graphics that wow and awe so much that one might be taken in by the whole thing and start to believe it. Essentially, there isn’t really any point to these fifteen and a half minutes other than an excuse to show off the (admittedly impressive) fabricated brand names and logos, or to perhaps encourage fans to suck up the merchandised vehicles’ features. Certainly it feels like an extended toy commercial, despite the complicated (and convoluted?) details of the vehicles, as advertised in the accompanying insert.


The Blu-ray may sound fancy at first as a three-disc set, but the only real extra is a half-hour Car-Fu Cinema featurette, while the extra discs are a bundled video game and a standard definition Digital Copy (see below for more), pricing the BD at almost ten bucks more. I understand the rights to the original cartoon are owned by Classic Media, but even so it would have been terrific to sample just an episode – perhaps the premiere one that sets up the backstory, should it exist? – for comparison and context. Hopefully, Speed Racer will find enough fans to warrant, if not a full blown sequel, at least a second, much more fulfilling dip on two-disc DVD and a roaring BD-50 hi-def experience in the near future.

Case Study:

An oddly bulked up and older looking Hirsch (he seems a lot younger and less bodybuilt in the actual movie) is the most prominent face on the hyper cover, which packs in Racer X and both their respective cars. If you can handle what’s going on in that artwork, you’ll be fine with the movie! A rare thing inside a WB DVD is an insert, but it only turns out to be advertising, for Mattel’s Hot Wheels collection of Speed Racer cars available to purchase. The widescreen edition is marked in blue along the top (don’t mistake it for the redundant cropped red top version that lops off half the movie) of both the sleeve art and the slightly shiny slipcover, which gives the film a bit of class the extras are lacking.


Beware the potentially gunky sticker promoting the standard definition Digital Copy of the film – without any bonus features and only available until March 16 2009 – on the front of the pack. Pretty cool, one might think, but it actually turns out to be a file download (unlocked with a code provided on an additional insert inside) from a non-Warner Bros. website that requires a sign-up to a new account and wants to charge an additional $2 for the pleasure. Um…no thanks?

Ink And Paint:

There was concern that the hi-def Blu-ray edition of the film was going to be heavily compromised on that format due to the lower capacity BD-25 discs being used, but if anything Speed Racer should look absolutely amazing if this standard definition DVD is anything to go by. It’s pure eye candy, with primary colors dripping from every inch of the frame like gloriously gloopy, glossy paint, further creating its own unique world. The image displays sharp definition too, and though colors have been pushed to their limits, there’s never any irritating bleed or shimmering among the pure blue skies and white puffy clouds, except in one or two isolated incidents where red has always traditionally been a problem for video to handle. Despite the unrelenting movement and lightning fast cuts, compression never rears its ugly head between shots until a little mosquito noise becomes evident around the names in the animated end credits, suggesting the 130-minute film and a half hour of extras have been evenly sandwiched onto the dual layered disc so as to provide a new benchmark for demo material.


Scratch Tracks:

Given a DTS track, there’s no doubt that Speed Racer would be the brand new demo disc on the block, but both DVD and Blu-ray have only been awarded the same Dolby Digital 5.1 mix: extremely proficient nonetheless and probably worthy of a Dolby demo workout even if it’s not quite an all-time record breaker. The benefit of being mostly recorded within the confines of a special effects stage, or at least having the majority of lines replaced in post-production, dialog is a sharp as it comes, with Giacchino’s score rocking around the speakers as much as the extremely whizzy sound effects. On a Dolby level, this is as blistering as burning rubber gets, but an EX, DTS or, for hi-def, Dolby-True uncompressed mix would simply blow competing titles off the track. English, French and Spanish subs and dubs are packed in.

Final Cut:

Speed Racer is destined to be one of those films that remains unsullied by sequels and franchise ambitions to go down in movie history as a truly unique one-off. It can’t, despite the numbers, be called a failure, since many critics, even the ones that “should know better”, came out in support of the film, and it’s true that it’s masterpiece of state-of-the-art visual effects staged filmmaking. Not having the faintest clue as to who was who and what the basic set-up was going in didn’t hinder my enjoyment whatsoever: it’s all explained very neatly right from the off and, like the best stories, black is bad and white is good, so everyone knows where they stand. Aiming at a lower age than the Wachowskis would normally do, they’ve hit a bullseye and managed to make a movie that should appeal to most demographics. A total surprise to me, I loved it, and it deserves to find a much bigger audience on disc. Yes, it has to be said again: go, Speed Racer, go!

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?