Published Mar 18, 2013Devoid of context, the critical coal-raking Speed Racer received and its resounding underperformance at the box office is completely understandable. It's an annoying, childish and garish movie.
But it accomplished exactly what it set out to do. The world just wasn't ready for a completely faithful live-action anime translation, nor may it ever be.
Based on the late '50s manga, Mach GoGoGo, an anime racing series that was produced in 1967, Speed Racer is a reverent big screen adaptation of the original material that only the Wachowskis (The Matrix, Cloud Atlas) could deliver. Their narrative take on the material is simple David and Goliath stuff as applied to corporate greed and corruption versus noble independent family business.
An idiot savant of sorts, the titular Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch, The Girl Next Door) was born to race (if he was a metal musician, I suppose his name would have been Palm Mute Thrasher) to the exclusion of all else.
His older brother, Rex Racer, was his hero until his untimely death and the revelation that he was working for the mob as a race fixer. As a young adult, Speed displays such promise on the circuit that he's offered a sponsorship deal with Royalton Industries, the biggest wig in the business.
Royalton (Roger Allam) is the kind of cutthroat corporate head that Pops Racer (John Goodman) affectionately equates to "the devil." Speed refuses to be seduced or bullied, agreeing to aid the Corporate Crimes Division in an investigation of Royalton and other corporate fixers instead, where he's partnered up with Racer X (Matthew Fox), a mysterious driver with a skill set suspiciously similar to that of his late brother.
There's nothing resembling actual character development and all of the plot beats can be seen coming a mile away, but a story full of intrigue and philosophical musings this is not. What matters to the Wachowkis in Speed Racer is putting something on screen that's never been seen before; and that, they achieve.
Ever the technical innovators, the skilled siblings were the first to use the Sony F23 digital camera to achieve equal clarity of focus in the foreground and background of shots, accurately emulating the style of the source material.
Candy-bright colour palettes are used thematically throughout the film and every cheesy editing technique, animation flourish, silly pose and grating gag involving Chim-Chim and Spritle comes directly from the anime.
You've got to hand it to them: they don't hold back—even a little bit—in the interest of popular taste. It's certainly not for everyone, but Speed Racer is a singular piece of work.
Speed Racer screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Comic Book Heroes retrospective at 1pm on March 20th, 2013. (Warner)