A Fresh Perspective: Speed Racer (2008)

Back when I was a little kid, there were TV shows I couldn’t get enough of.  Justice League, Pokemon, Wishbone, The Powerpuff Girls, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer never failed to satisfy.  But one of my absolute favorites was Speed Racer.  This “Japanimation” series was all about a kid named Speed Racer, who drove a car called the Mach 5 in dangerous and extreme automotive races.  Even when I was young, Speed Racer was a reasonably old show, having only started in 1967, but I guess there must’ve been other fans of the show still kicking back in 2008, when a live-action Speed Racer, directed by the Wachowskis and distributed by Warner Bros., burst onto the scene.

Well, maybe “burst” is the wrong word.  In reality, the Speed Racer movie “fizzled” onto the scene.  The critical reception of the film was less than stellar, with a 39% on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 37% on Metacritic.  Speed Racer drew criticism for its weak writing and sickeningly colorful effects.

And strangely, that’s what makes it so faithful to the original Speed Racer.  The show’s English dubs were a brilliant combination of campy silliness and brazen stupidity, and every episode was dripping with brightly colored characters, cars, and backgrounds.  And this leads to a major question in critiquing movies: if a film is faithful to its source material, and the source material wasn’t all that great, is it reasonable to criticize it?

There’s no doubt in my mind that the Speed Racer movie isn’t exactly Citizen Kane, but after seeing it lambasted by all manner of websites, I’m going to do something contrarian and crazy.  I’m going to try and convince people to watch and enjoy Speed Racer.

To begin with, it’s a stupid movie, but the right kind of stupidity.  I’m talking about Troll 2 or Thankskilling kinds of stupidity.  For instance, there’s a scene in which a ninja attempts to poison the titular Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch), only to find himself attacked by Speed’s father, EMILE HIRSCH as Speed Racer in a scene from Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ action adventure “Speed Racer,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.    PHOTOGRAPHS TO BE USED SOLELY FOR ADVERTISING, PROMOTION, PUBLICITY OR REVIEWS OF THIS SPECIFIC MOTION PICTURE AND TO REMAIN THE PROPERTY OF THE STUDIO. NOT FOR SALE OR REDISTRIBUTION.Papa Racer (John Goodman).  After being thoroughly trounced, the ninja scrambles away, and when Speed’s friend Trixie (Christina Ricci) says “Oh my god, was that a ninja?”  Papa Racer replies with, “More like a NON-ja.  Terrible what passes for a ninja these days.”  That’s the kind of stupid I’m talking about.

But that stupidity plays in the film’s favor.  Like I said earlier, the original Speed Racer had quite a bit of campy silliness, starting right from the opening theme with “Here comes Speed Racer!  He’s a demon on wheels!  He’s a demon and he’s gonna be chasing after someone!”  And the Speed Racer movie is suffused with that sort of comfortingly nostalgic crappiness.  The ludicrously colorful special effects are the icing on the epilepsy-inducing cake.  Racecars explode in clouds of brightly blue smoke, racers drive over brightly orange sand, and car headlights leave thick trails of light as the vehicles go shooting by.  There are also multiple scenes in which the tracks are surreally deformed to show multiple racers at once.  It all adds up to a painfully colorful yet weirdly endearing aesthetic.

A race scene from Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ action adventure “Speed Racer,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.  PHOTOGRAPHS TO BE USED SOLELY FOR ADVERTISING, PROMOTION, PUBLICITY OR REVIEWS OF THIS SPECIFIC MOTION PICTURE AND TO REMAIN THE PROPERTY OF THE STUDIO. NOT FOR SALE OR REDISTRIBUTION.

Ironically, the nostalgia appeal is equal parts Herculean bicep and Achilles’ heel.  If you watched the show as a kid, there’s a decent chance that Speed Racer will bring back memories of good times gone by.  But if you never saw the show, you’d probably just think it was a nauseatingly colorful and poorly-written film.  And frankly, you wouldn’t be wrong.  But folks who watched the original show are more likely to find amusement in Speed Racer’s idiosyncrasies, and it’s to these people that I most powerfully recommend Speed Racer.

So… yeah, sure, Speed Racer isn’t a good movie.  But the show wasn’t good either, and if you’ve learned to love the show, or if you’ve got a thing for retina-searing special effects, there’s a chance you could learn to love the movie.  I don’t think it quite compares to the show, but 2008’s Speed Racer found its way into my heart, and I can’t help but recommend it to longtime fans of the show.  That said, if you don’t care about the show, steer clear of the movie.  It’s highly unlikely that you’d find much to love in Speed Racer.

Score: 6/10

*Images from Fanpop.com, video from MOVIECLIPS

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