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Speed Racer Review

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by Mark Botwright Nov 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM

    Speed Racer Review

    At first this film may seem an odd choice of project for the Wachowski brothers to take on. They are still most notably known for their work on the Matrix trilogy and as such are heavily associated with a somewhat edgier experience than kitsch 60s cartoons. However, dig a little deeper and the duos decision to undertake the writing and directing of this family movie becomes a little clearer. They are said to be fans of the popular anime, upon which this live action film is based and they are merely two of a generation who feel a wave of nostalgia when they see the titular character referenced in one form or another. Perhaps there are some who remain unaware of the deep and lasting legacy Speed Racer has. It was at the forefront of the anime scene and one of the trailblazers that helped introduce America and the West as a whole to Japanese animation replete with all its quirks and oddities. Although it merely ran between 1967 and 68 in its native Japan (under the title Mach GoGoGo - a reference to the car Speed drives , the Mach 5 with Go being Japanese for said number) it seems to have left an impression on many, with its material being referenced by a diverse collection of artists from Devo to Tori Amos, Ghostface Killah of the Wu Tang Clan to The New York Times Magazine who are said to have intentionally given a nod to a scene in the series opening credits on their cover. I apologise for the history lesson but I feel it is appropriate for one to understand the universe in which this film sits. One must also be aware of the much loved original material it is bringing to life in order to give any form of accurate criticism or praise thereof.



    The story centres around Speed himself, a young man whose love of cars and racing is a lifelong passion. His father, Pops, builds cars which his brother Rex races, that is until he crashes and perishes in the ensuing explosion. It is around this event, which takes place whilst Speed is still a boy, that drives much of the proceedings. Though this may sound more like Beaches, believe me when I say that all this is still portrayed very much in a comic book manner and maintains the kitsch value of the original anime. In fact it is this very adherence to the original material that I feel has been overlooked in many reviews; it does not stray like other pop culture translations such as the frankly dire Super Mario Bros (sometimes Bob it's good not to talk!). Instead praise must be given to the Wachowski brothers for creating a live action version of a much loved franchise that retains the core elements that made the original a success.



    The key component was always going to be the styling of the film and how the race sequences were treated. Thankfully both have clearly been prioritised here with colours at an almost retina scorching degree of vibrancy and races that bring to life the speed and haphazard, chaotic nature of the series. Some films are engineered so as to allow a viewer to forget that the director is orchestrating how we see things with shots being slow and fluid. Here however Speed Racer decides to give the ADHD generation everything in its attention grabbing arsenal. It becomes a whirlwind of pans, wipes and close ups, all begging for an ooh or aaah as if it were a firework display and this ultimately is where it falls down for some.



    It appears that to appreciate this film in any way one has to be either a fan of the original anime/manga or be able to view a film from a child's perspective. This requires a non judgemental attitude towards the lack of character development or real drama and an ability to simply bathe oneself in the sugary sweetness and vivid imagery on show. My hypothesis would be that for many this will be impossible. It seems as though some reviewers drew a parallel between its roots and those of other colourful, often superhero films of the modern era and somehow expected an up to date retelling. What they had not counted on was an imagining that was so true to the original that it bemuses those who have no previous memories of the show and thus have no chance to feel the sweep of nostalgia that it evokes. This is not a darker version of a superhero comic nor is it, or was it intended to be, in competition with other family friendly films such as those of the Pixar studio which seek to contain two levels of humour, one for adults and another for children. There are no layers here. This is not a delicately flavoured five course meal that has been affectionately garnished with an exotic mix of herbs and spices. This is bubble gum, sherbert dib dabs and popping candy and it bears those credentials proudly.



    I for one appreciated the film as a spectacle akin to a laser light show. I'm not generally one for high kitsch but Roger Allam hammed up his role as the Machiavellian Royalton beautifully. The rest of the performances are very much in keeping with the cartoon roots though pushing towards camp excess in places. However they are generally played in such a way that you're never awakened from the idea that you are in fact watching a live action animation that has catapulted itself out of the late sixties/early seventies. Personally I prefer my anime action on the darker side and would far have preferred the Wachowskis to have taken upon the task of a live action version of the Debiruman/Devilman series (1972), however I still hold a great place in my heart for Tatsuo Yoshida's creation that I was only too pleased to have the chance to review it. I will admit to some trepidation when hearing of what seemed like an unusual pairing of material and directors/writers but I am glad to say that for the most part my fears were unjustified.



    To sum up, this will not appeal to those who are hankering after a mature re-working of the source material. However, for those who still fondly remember the original series and wondered what a real Mach 5 would look like, then this has to be worth at least a cursory glance. There is much on show for those of a more Otaku nature, such as appearances from Rain (a Korean singer/actor with a large following), Hiroyuki Sanada (those who jumped on the Ring bandwagon before the awful American remake will be well aware of him and perhaps still a little afraid to answer the phone.....) and a delightful cameo by Peter Fernandez who voiced Speed in the US version of the series. That it comes across as more a kaleidoscope than a film, almost as if a child had created their own version of Koyaanisqatsi with cars and colours replacing thoughtful imagery, is beside the point. For an adult to fully appreciate this film requires a suspension of all logic and reason and simply the ability to become that child, whose sole wish was a toy car for Christmas. One wonders if those who so disliked this film would have been satisfied with the same scenes simply cut together but from the original cartoon. I somewhat doubt it.