Movie: Speed Racer
Directed by the Wachowskis
Release date 2008
Genre Action/racing/family film
Originally known as Mach GoGoGo in Japan, Speed Racer was a cult classic anime produced by Tatsunoko Productions which ran for 52 episodes on Fuji TV back in 1967. It was brought outside Japan and became a huge hit worldwide. Over the years there's been various products and spinoffs produced in both Japan and America including manga and comic book adaptation, games, an awful 1993 American more "contemporary" cartoon series, an animated film, a 1997 Japanese remake series and a 20008 reboot, "Speed Racer: The Next Generation".
Like most of Tatsunoko's series Speed Racer went through some heavy editing and dubbing, such as changing the name of all of the characters, including our main character from Go Mifune into Speed Racer. At the very least the insanely catchy theme song was actually kept from the original Japanese version but simply redone in English.
This here review is for the live action American adaptation based on the classic series.
Which was written and directed by noneother than the then-Wachowski Brothers for Warner Bros. Pictures, coming right up from their immense success with the whole The Matrix trilogy and the cult hit V for Vendetta.
The story follows the original anime pretty closely.
It's about this young race pilot named Speed who wants to follow in the footsteps of his deceased brother Rex. Speed's always been pretty loyal to his family company, Racer Motors, refusing to join this big evil shady company Royalton Industries.
His whole life has always revolved around racing. At Racer Motors there's his parents, Pops and Mom, his younger brother Spritle and his pet chimp Chim-Chim, a mechanic Sparky and Speed's girlfriend Trixie. Speed always idolized his older brother Rex before he was killed in a deadly cross-country race.
Royalton Industries try to by Speed, but he refuses at all cost. They're able to destroy one of Racer Motors' cars, the Mach 6. Speed discovers the races are fixed. He finally joins the big race behind the wheel of his brother's car, the Mach 5, teaming up with this mysterious Racer X.
The family and Trixie support Speed in his quest. He defeats various racers despite all odds. They drive together.
It is finally revealed it was Royalton's plan all along to buy Racer Motors and increase their value first. Speed finally enters the Grand Prix.
At the end of the film we finally find out the masked Racer X was the long-thought disappeared brother Rex all along who had faked his death to face the corrupt racing system and help his family...!
The film had really been in production as long as this other live action adaptation of another childhood cartoon, The Flintstones. That's right. Long before Hollywood went crazy for comic book superheroes they had been after cartoons first.
And it took over 15 years and 5 different directors before Speed Racer took form on the big screen. The project saw all sorts of names over years, different directors, different writers and different actors. Those directors included Alfonso Cuarón who was almost as director back in 1997, and the likes of J. J. Abrams and Patrick Read Johnson had been hired to write the script. Thanks to their prior collaborations, around 2006 producer Joel Silver locked the Wachowskis on Speed Racer. The budget kind of fluctuated on the film since they were pretty ambitious for their adaptation.
Before Emile Hirsch landed with the role the project had been meant for Johnny Depp back in June 1995 originally, who was cast for the lead role first! Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shia LaBeouf almost got the role as well. Hirsch finally got the role thanks to his passion for the project, he had watched every single episode of the anime and visited a few motor shops.
In fact you can say what you want about the film, but you have to recognize it stars a pretty impressive cast featuring Christina Ricci as Speed's girlfriend Trixie - who got the role over the other running stars Elisha Cuthbert and Kate Mara, the always fun John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, a Matthew Fox coming of a huge success on Lost, Benno Fürmann, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rain and Richard Roundtree.
Warner Bros. wanted a fun and simple family film for a broader audience.
You have to wonder.. why did the movie really flop considering it's basically everything the audience usually asks for? The film really had it all going for it, it is a decent summer blockbuster flick actually.
As good as the classic anime series would allow it to be. With a great perfect casting. Visuals as close to the original anime as possible.
The movie starts pretty abrupt, with an explanatory flashback scene and whatnot but always with some great attention to the visuals. Sure, it's pretty corny, the story is kind of dumb, but what did you expect from an adaptation based on a Saturday morning cartoon? The racing is pretty cartoony. It makes for a clorful and action packed entertaining film.
And since this comes from the Wachowskis, we even get some fun martial art fights.
The went for a sort of photorealist ultra-detailed real-life anime look for the film. Playing with editing and whatnot. They found a way to make this as close to a live action anime, playing with foregrounds and backgrounds separately. Filming of the car scenes was made in front of green screens on a hydraulic pump bumping the actors all around on a simulator for hours.
All in all it's a pretty underrated film that really deserves to be a cult classic. It's glossy. It looks expensive. And yet, it was ignored by most people despite some great performances from the great talented actors involved on the film.
Sadly the film was a huge flop.
I can understand why some people didn't enjoy it. There's some questionable choices on the film and an overwhelming use of CGi and green screen effects. But to be fair it's also as quasi-perfect an adaptation as you could get taking account of the original material. It feels like a really close copy of the anime.
It's fun and entertaining. It totally delivers on the premise. Sure, the characters and the dialogues can sound pretty dumb. But it was a simple racing anime! The film is overloaded with content. The special effects are great but they're way too crowded with details. And there's too many storylines interlocked in the film, it really feels like they tried to pack as much content from the entire show in a single feature film.
Speed Racer was a big flop, it bombed badly at the box office, falling well behind Warner Bros. expectations (considering it was also released at the same time as Iron Man!). Despite some solid nominations for sound, visuals and editing, it was also awarded for a few Golden Raspberry awards...
Most of the cast and crew kept defending the film for a long time even after all the harsh critics and rejection from the public. I think a lot of people simply didn't get the film. It was fun! Nothing in the film was clearly not supposed to be "real", it's an animated world brought to life, emulating the original anime with real actors.
The orchestral score composed by Michael Giacchino is a lovely tribute to the classic anime series, remixing classic sounds and the theme songs from both the American and the Japanese version. A really fun energetic score!
Overall, Speed Racer is a really underrated classic!
Check It Out! The Wachowskis did a lot of great clever things adapting the source material, they found some clever ways to adapt anime speedlines into live action, like using the snow to the same effect during a fight scene or the lights during the racing. There's some great unique ways to use FXs. If you like animes chances are these details won't detract you from enjoying the film, there's some great attention to the details. I liked the little jokes like Speed's contract being covered in 4 stacks of documents. There's a lot of payoff and tributes to those classic Speed Racer Moments.
But the film was sandwiched between an Iron Man and Crystal Skulls in a pretty crowded year. Compared to blockbusters at the time since Batman Begins, it simply felt too campy and silly. Since then the film's been getting much nicer critics. It is a really fun film. Also, I simply loved Christina Ricci's Trixie in the film!
To help promote the film all kinds of products and toys were made to tie into the film's release from Hot Wheels car sets to a new Speed Racer game for the Wii and PS2.
Originally there were plans for a sequel if would have made better. Some fun ideas were even discussed for a sequel and Christina Ricci kept talking about these plans for a long while after the film.
I give it: