Lately, I have been watching these videos from the Nostalgia Critic. If you aren’t familiar with him, you can find him on over 300 videos on YouTube, and he really gives bad movies a roast that most of them richly deserve. I really admire Doug Walker’s very animated style that reminds me of “Weird-Al” Yankovic. I have decided to sort of do the opposite this time, as I want to take a film that was a flop, and praise it.
This is the case of Speed Racer, a 2008 summer film that lost Warner Brothers a whole lot of money, about 70 million dollars worth. It made very little on its opening weekend at 20 million, and I some ideas on why it didn’t succeed which I will explain later. I went to this film and had an incredibly good time, and I don’t see why in the world the rest of the world didn’t share in my experience.
In case you are totally unfamiliar with Speed Racer, it is based on an anime show of the same name. I grew up watching this show, and it is rather dated. The show was about a professional race car driver named Speed Racer (serious, that was his name) who would embark on cross country races that would end up being adventures. Sometimes the race would be the adventure, but most of the times, it was like Murder, She Wrote or Hart to Hart, where Speed Racer would stumble into adventure inadvertently. I’m going to give some spoilers in the next few paragraphs, so you might want avoid reading the next part.
Speed Racer the movie is very true to the original anime series, and I would say that it even takes it a step further. Emile Hirsch plays the title character so well, that he really looks like him. Christina Ricci also does a pretty good job as Trixie, Speed’s girlfriend who is thankfully not good at playing a damsel in distress. Paulie Litt does an interesting job as Speed Racer’s brother Spritle, and even has a pet monkey Chim-Chim like on the original show. John Goodman is a good choice for Pops Racer (his real name), and Susan Sarandon plays a likable Mom (also her name, according to the credits).
Speed Racer has an odd method of story-telling. The beginning shows the beginning of Speed’s backstory where he loses his brother, Rex Racer. On the show, Rex Racer and Pops have a disagreement and he simply runs away. In the movie, Rex dies…or does he? It is a pretty tragic and deep story for a PG film, but it works well. The film spends the first fifteen minutes in flashback with young Speed Racer and his brother, as well as the present, where Speed is about to break his brother’s record at Thunderhead, which looks like one of those die-cast race tracks, but it is real. Much of the racing effects in the film are CG because it would be too expensive to build tracks like this and I’m not certain whether it would work to even have races like this. Speed sees his brother racing with him as a ghost on the track, which is reminiscent of most racing video games.
This opening is a good example of the films experimentalism. The film is by Andy and Lana Wachowski, who gave us the Matrix trilogy. It was in the second film where the directors showed us a scene where characters are planning an attack, and then show the plan being implemented. It is an odd way of doing chronology in a film, and it is done in Speed Racer in abundance. For example, there is a scene where the villain of the film is telling Speed that he will fail at his next race. The background blurs, and Speed does fail, just as the villain said.
The villain is a corporate CEO named Royalton, who I don’t remember from the cartoon. There are occasionally some villains from the anime like Snake Oiler and Cruncher Block. Yes, this was these characters’ names, and no, they are not like they were in the cartoon. What makes Royalton unique from Speed Racer TV villains is that he represents the corruption in racing. Royalton is interesting because he attempts to corrupt Speed Racer financially and morally.
Speed Racer also has a very odd way of doing cuts where they will take someone’s face or an object and move it across the screen in order to switch scenes like the traditional wipe. It is an editing style that is very over-the-top, and it utterly failed in the first Hulk movie. For this film, it works.
The effects work well in this film, and some of them are quite interesting. I mentioned before that most of the racing scenes are CG, and I can tell that most of the scenes were film in front of a green screen to make it easy to insert special effects backgrounds. Films like 300 and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow did the same thing, and this film has a style that is all its own. This style creates a believable world that is still unbelievable. Speed’s car has this ability to jump that is pretty interesting, but one button seems to flip the car backward, to the side, or whatever the scene calls for. There is one scene that I love where someone tries to take out Speed’s car with one of those drill-bits that come out of the wheels. Speed’s car has a shield that can stop it, and it becomes a small battle. I have never seen that before, and probably never will again.
For some reason, the colors of this film are more pastel than the entire eighties decade, which creates a very odd setting for this film. In fact, I am certain that Speed Racer takes place in a world that is not ours at all. It seems futuristic, as cities look like the cityscapes of Blade Runner but with more color.
What I really like about Speed Racer is how the family is so involved with Speed’s life. In many films, characters have to get over their daddy issues, and their mother is often a hindrance to the main character’s goals. In this film, Speed’s father is far from perfect, but they work through their issues. Speed’s mother, despite the fact that she is frightened at times for her son’s choice of career, still supports him 100 percent. It is a pleasant change.
So why didn’t this film work? Perhaps it was targeted at an audience that was too young to appreciate it. The studio wanted an audience that they could market to all ages, but Speed Racer the original series was actually quite violent. Speed Racer the movie has no characters dying in car crashes because of these weird airbags, but on the cartoon, there was quite a lot of death. Villains often die in horrendous ways, and if Speed Racer had an R-rating, this could have happened. I’m not certain if it would help.
Another reason is because sometimes the pastel colors and often gratuitous use of effects might be too much on the eyes. I can totally see some people having epileptic seizures over some of these scenes, although I didn’t hear of any cases of that.
The main reason I believe that this failed is it was released on week after Iron Man, which was a huge hit. I have noticed that when a huge hit comes out, it often eclipses other films that are just as big. I believe that John Carter of Mars would have had more of an audience if The Hunger Games was not out at the same time.
Speed Racer, is, at its heart, a Sports movie, just like Rocky or the Karate Kid. It is essentially the one man going up against rigid competition and being victorious. The ending uses a lot of flashbacks to scenes earlier in the films, which usually doesn’t work. In this case, it comes together so well it is darn-right inspiring.