There are movies that as soon as you hear about them, you know you’re going to go see them. Movies that are the realization of some childhood dream come true, that you shout “YES!!” as soon as you hear they’re going to be made.
Speed Racer was NOT one of those for me.
My wife showed me the first trailer, and said that she wanted me to take her to see it. My eyeballs crossed at the psychedelically intense colors and the apparent cheesiness of the trailer itself, but she had been a Speed Racer fan when she was younger and this was something she insisted on – as a late anniversary celebration, in fact (premiere night was only a few days after our anniversary).
I had never watched Speed Racer when I was a kid, and only caught a couple of the episodes off and on – and I had not been impressed. This looked like it was going to be an epically bad film, and not in the “fun” way, either.
So I resigned myself to going, and figured this would at least be one of those things I could use as backup for other things I might want to do. “Remember, I went to see that Speed Racer movie with you, so you’d better…”
I was wrong.
Oh, Speed Racer was indeed filled with psychedelically bright colors, and scenery-chewing performances that would put BRIAN BLESSED to shame, and one of the most bizarrely not-quite-sensible worlds ever put on film… but it all worked, and worked so stunningly well that I am not sure but what I would say that Speed Racer was the best movie of 2008 – and there was quite some competition that year, too. It’s true that most critics (except one from Time) didn’t agree with me, and certainly the box office didn’t.
But this was a movie that, like Galaxy Quest, was clearly a labor of love. The Wachowskis clearly knew exactly what they were trying to do, and so did most, if not all, of their cast, and that cast was chosen perfectly. I later watched quite a bit of the original cartoon, and it was actually almost frightening how close some of the actors managed to come to their clumsily-animated models; John Goodman, in particular, was born to be Pops Racer.
One of the most powerful elements —in fact, I would say the single most powerful element – that makes Speed Racer work is that it is, at its heart, a story of a family. It’s a strange family, in an even more peculiar world (of which I’ll say more later), but it is that extreme rarity in movie and Tvland today: a functional family, a family to whom family matters are important and whose triumphs and tragedies are shared by everyone. Most families in modern media tend to be dysfunctional in one way or another – father or mother missing, adults shown to be idiots (or children shown to be annoying brats and little else), abuse, etc. In Speed Racer (and a couple other movies I’ll discuss elsewhere) the family may have arguments but they are never against each other – and the only long-standing rift in the family is a source of sorrow and renewed resolve to never allow it to happen again for the parents.
The world of Speed Racer is, itself, a character, and a very strange character it is. You can almost make sense of it, although if you really think about it too much it can give you a headache. In the world of Speed Racer, competitive, no-holds-barred car races have become the biggest and most watched sport in the world – to the point, it appears, that the competition of these super-cars has mostly replaced the regular warfare/defense industry as the driver for bleeding-edge technologies. This, in turn, makes the races vastly bigger business than any sport today, and thus the stakes – and competitiveness – are much higher than anything we know today. And, like so many other sports and industries, there are those influencing the outcome, trying to control the entirety of the process.
From this – and the strangely 1950s-future society of the world, which I sometimes think of as being very similar to what the American society of the Fallout series must have been like before the big war – we get the basic plot: the bad guys are the people who control racing and the connected industries, and they ruthlessly try to recruit – or destroy – those who come into the races as independents. Speed and his family are independents, with a long family history of racing, and they’re not about to give all that away, or give it up.
The performances by all the actors are flawless. Oh, many of them are melodramatic in the extreme, but they’re supposed to be, and they deliver exactly what they’re supposed to. Speed’s the somewhat hotheaded idealist, his father’s gruff and cynical on the outside yet as warmhearted as anyone inside, and Roger Allam’s Royalton is a deceptively pleasant man who suddenly turns into a scenery-chewing villain second to none – and all of them are practically lifted straight out of the cartoon, right down to the large field of competing racers who all have origins linked to the cartoon.
The movie’s filled with suspense, action, humor, in-jokes, and many heartwarming moments as well, with the action often going in strange directions; the entire world is bizarrely cross-pollinated with stereotypes from a dozen different genres, with Royalton’s clearly English-derived character running a huge Mafiaesque crime syndicate crossed with a modern Big Business approach that – when the American main characters are running in a race that appears to cross Moroccan deserts and European mountain ranges – sends ninjas to assassinate them (“More like nonjas. Terrible what passes for ninjas nowadays.”).
The climax of the movie – the Grand Prix, the most important race in the world – is one of the finest grand finale combats ever filmed, even though most of the “combat” is performed by impossible vehicles on even more impossible tracks. It is a perfectly choreographed, perfectly directed, and perfectly scored (by Michael Giacchino) sequence that is exciting, tense, and ultimately uplifting, with its resolution perfectly heartwarming and tearjerking (and with a bit of perfect symmetric justice thrown in).
Speed Racer, my friends: overcoming my prejudices through sheer audacity and brilliance. If you haven’t seen it, give it a try!