In Praise of 2008’s Speed Racer
The Wachowski’s Overlooked Visual Gem
2008’s Speed Racer is something unlike anything I have ever seen from an *attempted* Hollywood Blockbuster, even now, a little over 10 years after the film’s initial release. In regards of it’s initial release, the film’s budget was approximately $120 million, while only grossing $93.9 Million, which is obviously not an ideal box office income. However, monetary return does not always equate to quality, as evidenced by films such as both Blade Runner movies, Annihilation, and Big Trouble in Little China to name a few. Along with lackluster box office returns, critical repetition was overwhelmingly negative. For many reviewers, they attacked the film for having style over substance, but it is with this film that a lot of the substance comes from it’s style. Before I am ostracized for comparing Speed Racer to those cinematic marvels, let me say this; Speed Racer will one day be looked at as a classic and overlooked masterpiece.
Since it’s release over 10 years ago, the overwhelmingly negative perception surrounding this film has started to shift, with fans coming out of the shadows, now praising its unique visual style, it’s emotional storytelling through the performances, and it’s impactful use of non-realism. For me personally, I recall seeing this as a kid, not in theaters, but catching it on HBO or as a random TV replay, but remember it leaving a strong impression on me, enough to make me want to revisit it over the summer of 2018, and let me tell you that it was a RIDE.
For those who are unfamiliar with the concept and story of Speed Racer, here is some much needed context. Speed Racer began as a manga series in Japan, created by Tatsuo Yoshida. Stemming from the success of the manga in the early 1960s, a full anime series was born, with 52 episodes airing in Japan from 1967–1968, and then gaining traction once again in the 1997, with a modernized remake of the original series called Speed Racer X (also known as Mach GoGoGo). For the sake of the film, it follows the original manga and anime over the Speed Racer X variant.
The film’s key cast is made up of Emile Hirsch as the titular character Speed Racer, Scott Porter as Rex Racer, Matthew Fox as Racer X, Susan Sarandon as Mom, John Goodman as Pops, Christina Ricci as Trixie, Kick Gurry as Sparky, Christian Oliver as Snake Oiler, and Roger Allam as Royalton. It is also worth noting here that this casting was not an attempt at whitewashing a foreign piece of media, as the original manga and anime feature western characters, as Yoshida, the creator of the original Speed Racer, had a love for the United States, and the American lifestyle due to the country’s portrayal in popular American films.
Hirsch’s performance as the lead is very solid. He provides an emotionally charge performance and does very well with the material. Personally I feel as if the three leads in Speed, Trixie, and Racer X were truly built around these actors, with each of their performances feelings completely realized. Ricci manages to make Trixie’s catchphrase of “Cool Beans” not sound insufferable and annoying, actually making it a nice quirk of her character throughout the movie. Ricci and Hirsch’s chemistry also really works to sell their romantic relationship, which helps that aspect of the film. Matthew Fox as Racer X is also excellent, with him emphasizing the mystery around his character’s true identity throughout the film. Lastly, Roger Allam’s portrayal of Royalton is another notable one, with him chewing scenery in almost every scene he’s in.
John Goodman deserves his own section of praise for this film. Through the entirety of this film, Goodman hams it up in the best way in almost every scene he’s in (besides the scenes where he’s dealing with the loss of his son Rex and the potential loss of Speed) and is always a joy to watch in this. He also has some of the most quotable lines, as evidenced by the following clip, which includes his wonderful delivery of the line, “More like a NON-ja” after being asked if he just dispatched of a ninja assassin. In all seriousness, Goodman’s performance helps bring even more life to film already jam-packed with fun, that was made with a clear sense of love and appreciation for the source material, embracing the wacky, over-the-top world created within the manga and anime.
The score for Speed Racer was composed by Michael Giacchino. The music within the movie often really captures the essence of old-school Saturday morning cartoons. It feels as colorful as the actual visual components of the film itself. The implementation of the original Speed Racer theme song from the anime is perfect, and the original music composed by Giacchino sounds like it was crafted with such love and dedication to the film. Both the visuals and the music within the movie pair so well together, and truly elevate the final product here, leading to one fully cohesive piece of art. Speed Racer, the end credits track is easily the best example of the beautifully composed songs for the movie.
Realism was never the goal with Speed Racer. The style created with this film was meant to feel like it had just jumped straight off the pages of the 1960s manga, or had been translated from the cartoon-style of the anime to into a hyper-surreal live action world. This otherworldly experience is made up of vibrant colors, intense saturation, melodramatic characters, and a world where racing is one of the main staples of worldwide culture. That goal to break down the walls of non-realism and redefine the meaning of the word non-realism was accomplished in spades with this film, as the visual style of this film is probably the most accurate live-action adaptation of an anime by Hollywood. It is a movie that is both faithful to it’s source material in visual style and in it’s narrative.
For those who prefer realism in their films, Speed Racer’s use of non-realism is so spectacularly executed, that once embraced, it makes for a truly entrancing viewing experience. It is a gift that keeps on giving, with a continual escalation of the visuals and action sequences over the course of the film. Every race sequence in the movie is pure eye candy in it’s peak form. The action is always taken to the next level, the colors are always bright, and the character interactions are always fun. This movie is pure, unadulterated fun, that packs a serious amount of charm.
The final race in the film is easily the best representation of the insane visual style. So much is happening within this final sequence and yet it is still easy to tell what is going on. The way the film blends the scenes together, making it feel like comic book panels being placed within one another is executed with such precision and care, that it makes this final scene the standout of the whole film. Speed comes back from being cheated, and works his way to his big win, but it is in the style of the film that this scene really works. The blending of the different scenes, the rush of colors, the push into deeper surrealism, all leading to the moment when he wins makes that moment even more satisfying. His big win in the final race feels more than earned and makes for a satisfying conclusion to his story in this movie.
For those critics who stated that the Wachowski’s chose to focus on style over substance with Speed Racer, that claim is wrong. The filmmakers had love for the source material in a way that almost no live action adaptation of an anime/cartoon/video game has ever had. This is a love letter to a silly, over-the-top 1960s anime about racing. This is one of the strongest examples of being a film made with substance within the style. It is a film that should not be able to be made, and yet the Wachowski’s did just that.
It is a real shame that this film got so panned upon it’s initial release. The love and care that went into this adaptation really shines through upon further viewings. The coupling of the bright, colorful, comic book-like visuals and the vibrant score, along with a lot of over-the-top performances helps solidify this as a unique piece of art, and truly as in my opinion, the strongest live action anime adaptation to date. I highly encourage anyone reading this to go out of their way to re-watch, or probably in most cases, watch this movie for the first time. As of November 2018, Speed Racer is streaming on Netflix. This movie has been overlooked for far too long, and there is no better time than now for it to take it’s rightfully earned victory lap.