When I first saw Sylvester Stallone’s Academy Award winning Rocky, I knew that I liked it. After reading about it on the internet and spending more time thinking about it, I liked it even more. When I finished the series and went back to watch that first film again, I realized that the movie is almost perfect and that I absolutely love it. My ever-growing reverence for the Wachowski brothers’ unfortunate flop Speed Racer follows a similar path.
I saw the movie in theaters when it was first released and gave it a 3 1/2 star rating. I mostly dismissed the movie, nothing that it “is what it is” – namely, a colorful anime cartoon show that has been brought to life. It wasn’t until I saw the film again on DVD that I realized how much technical wizardry was brought into making the kaleidoscopic visuals for the film. And now, having viewed the film several times over, I am only beginning to understand that the movie should never have been marketed toward children in the first place. Its central conflicts have less to do with automobile racing than with business strategy and personal growth, concepts that are sure to whiz easily over the heads of (I think I’m safe saying this) all children.
The vast majority of criticism that Speed Racer receives comes as a result of its sensory-overload style of imagery. The film is populated with bright colors which swirl and blend and flash continuously. The logos for the production companies at the beginning of the movie play over a literal kaleidoscope of colors. Another reason that Speed Racer is not for children is the fact that the kinetic energy of the visuals is brought to life in the dialogue as well. In the first few minutes of the film, we are quickly introduced to the Racer family and get a meticulous back-story involving the mysterious death of the eldest Racer son, Rex, who seemed to be involved in some shady business dealings with race sponsors. This story is told in flashbacks which fluidly take over the screen, sliding into focus and out again once their part is done. But not all of the pieces are given to us immediately, and the fact that the movie requires it audience to piece it together is part of why it plays better for mature viewers.
I could go on and on about the visual artistry at play here. Like Tarsem Singh’s unfairly maligned The Cell, I’m confident that a reappraisal of Speed Racer could easily lead to the movie becoming a cult classic. One of my favorite scenes has the oily R.J. Royalton discussing his dastardly plans with one of his henchmen. Sparks and fire drip in the background, while the actors slide through the scene in many different positions – facing each other, standing beside one another, brought into the foreground, back to back – it’s difficult to describe exactly without being able to show it to you. Or how about a moment early in the film when a young Speed imagines that he is driving a T-180 in a big race. Although it’s all in his imagination, the world around him distorts and elongates until he is traveling through a multi-colored tunnel of light. It’s spectacular.
In addition to the magnificent special effects and the brilliant camerawork, the movie is also well-served by its stellar cast. Emile Hirsch, John Goodman, and Susan Sarandon are all stand-outs here. It’s true that the film can get a bit silly at times, such as when the Racer family is given a tour of Royalton Industries and witness drivers preparing themselves for races by building human pyramids and running in gigantic hamster wheels. The talent of the three leads manages to ground the human story, luckily, and makes for some really moving moments. When Speed thinks he’s not capable of defeating the plans of Royalton and wonders whether his racing is meaningless, his mother (Sarandon) sweetly encourages him by comparing his skills as a driver to that of a painter. It’s not just the actors themselves; they’ve all got a great chemistry together. You get the sense that this is a family that really loves one another. There’s so much tenderness in the simplest of moments, such as when Pops Racer says that his sons are the best thing he’s ever done, aside from marrying his best friend – to which Mom briefly smiles.
I mentioned before the lofty ideas at play in the movie, and I want to discuss that in more detail now. Because the cars in Speed’s races are all owned by corporations (in much the same way that NASCAR drivers find themselves driving the “Tide” car, the “Lowe’s” car, etc.), it would be easy to imagine that the bad guys would want their own company’s vehicle to win race after race. In actuality, it’s more complicated than that, with stock prices in flux due to the outcome of each race, mergers and acquisitions in talk at all times, and so forth. It quite possible that a driver whose car was demolished in the second lap could play a more pivotal role in the evil schemes than the race’s winner. In one noteworthy race, Speed’s goal is not to win but instead to help another driver succeed – from a tactical standpoint, it was the most beneficial maneuver for him to take. These are not the sorts of ideas that a ten-year old can appreciate.
That said, the chronology can be confusing at times and some characters (like Horuko) are not properly introduced. There’s a scene that confused me for the longest time wherein it is difficult to tell whether to interpret it as a flash-forward or a true-to-life event. Things like that can be frustrating. Occasionally the races become little more than a flash of colors and shapes, which is something that critic Jim Emerson spent a great deal of time complaining about. At any given point in the race, Emerson contends, it is nearly impossible to understand where the cars are in relation to one another. I was thinking about this while watching the film tonight and I came to the conclusion that it is not important to understand where the cars are. Whether Speed is in third place or thirteenth place is irrelevant – when that information becomes necessary, the movie will let you know. Instead, the personal battles between our heroes and the thugs trying to take them down are given the most weight and should therefore be given full attention.
The more pressing fault with the movie is the inclusion of Speed’s younger brother Spritle and his pet chimpanzee Chim Chim. The character of Spritle is unbelievably annoying and doesn’t seem to serve any other purpose than ruining scenes which are progressing nicely without him. One tense scene wherein Speed has to make a decision about whether to join forces with Royalton keeps getting interrupted by stupid shots of Spritle and his ape doing stupid things, which only derails the emotion in the A-story, throwing the pacing off and disturbing the tone. It’s almost as if the producers thought that the movie was going to fail if it was mostly quirky and positioned toward the college set, so they tried to widen the prospective audience by cobbling together a child and chimp to play comic relief.
Although a long review from the A.V. Club’s self-obsessed Nathan Rabin is needlessly vile, it sums up this discord nicely, describing the movie as “stuck somewhere between kitsch and heavy drama, outright ridiculousness and moody intensity.” Rabin’s piece ends by labeling the movie a Fiasco (the three choices: Failure, Fiasco, Secret Success). I guess I can see that viewpoint, but I’m more inclined to think of it as a Secret Success. There are a few things that Speed Racer does wrong, there’s no doubt about that. But on the other hand, there’s so much that is so wonderful about the movie… I can’t help but think of it as an undiscovered gem.
Thanks to Spritle, I doubt I’ll ever get to the point where I have myself convinced that Speed Racer is a five-star film. But I don’t have any reservations with saying that it is a great film, and one of my favorites.