Since the turn of the millennium, movie-goers have been graced with such a remarkable advent of computer-generated imagery that a million previously un-adaptable properties have since made the transition to the big screen. Fantasy movies, comic book movies, sci-fi epics that all had visual landscapes too incredible for conventional film treatments all broke free from development hell and got their chance. The best among these have been more than really fun movies; they have proved the possibility of translating something like an old comic or animated series into a movie-type movie. And while there are a few that deserve special mention for really pushing things forward, the one that did the most and gets the least amount of credit for it is a box office flop from 2008 that adapted a bonkers 1960s anime and manga about fast cars, evil drivers, the power of family, and a mysterious missing brother: Speed Racer.
The story: Speed Racer is the racing circuit’s hottest young star, blasting around the tracks in his souped-up dream on wheels, the gleaming Mach 5. He is backed by the Racer Motors, run by his parents, Mom and Pop, and featuring Speed’s little brother Spirtle, the chimpanzee Chim-Chim, family mechanic Sparky, and Speed’s long-time girlfriend Trixie. Collectively, they still mourn the tragic death of Speed’s older brother Rex, whom he idolized. But as he races on, inspired by Rex’s memory, Speed does battle with hairpin curves and evil drivers hellbent on forcing Speed to cross the finish line in a ball of fire and twisted metal. Those nogoodniks are backed by a rogue’s gallery of shady financiers, promoters, backers, fixers, crooks and company men who all have their own agenda to turn the noble sport of motor racing into a cynical exercise where lives are cheap, but cars aren’t, and the only thing that matters more than winning is money. But is Speed gonna let that happen? Heck, no. He’s gonna succeed where his brother died, racing the most treacherous contest in the world, the Casa Cristo 500. And when he does, he’s gonna blow this sport wide open and expose every squirming, lying snake trying to poison it. Go, Speed, go!
If that all sounds a little over the top, get ready, because the story and sentiment of this movie are nothing compared to its visuals. Filmed almost entirely against a greenscreen, every frame is tuned to super-saturated color and every single shot is in full focus, making this movie something impossible to watch casually. Made to look almost flat, like animation, Speed Racer is filled with an extraordinary amount of visual data as cars spin around the course or when anime speed lines fill the background fo the frame. The result is wholly unique, and probably not the kind of thing just anyone can sit down and watch. But for those with an appetite for six different kinds of velocity and a willingness to melt their face, Speed Racer delivers the goods.
What makes the movie work especially well is how earnest the whole thing is. It deviates from the source material just a bit in that the dozens of evil and NPC drivers who crash and burn don’t die horrible deaths, but rather are encapsulated in magical crash foam to spare them any real injury. But what might feel like a de-fanging ends up becoming part of the movie’s charm: good guys don’t kill bad guys, and so this movie won’t either. Meanwhile, the performances throughout are all acted at full throttle, completely embracing the impossibility and goofiness of the Speed Racer universe. There is Oscar-winning talent assembled in this thing, and not for a second do they hold back. And in so doing, they never give the audience a moment to stop and disbelieve what they’re seeing. They’re just as much a part of the magic as its crazy cars, looping race tracks and endless cityscapes. So when they bring us through a frankly ridiculous story about how the evil tycoon E.P. Arnold Royalton would rather destroy Speed Racer than allow him to race without a Royalton endorsement, they make us believe that the innocence that Racer Motors stands for isn’t some hokey plot device. It’s a real thing that somewhere beneath the movie’s million layers of technicolor can be discovered for ourselves, fought for, won and preserved. It takes guts to make a movie like this to send a message like that while bankrolled by $120 million of Hollywood money, but Speed Racer does it. And the more years that pass between when it was made and now, the more wholesome and true the whole thing feels. Sure, it’s a dozen different kind of bonkers, but what dream isn’t?
The moment of truth in this movie is its extended trailer, believe it or not, which simply shows the first seven minutes of the film. A lot of movies can’t really give you a proper expectation in that kind of time because of how they are paced and the story they try to tell. But with Speed Racer, the whole movie is in microcosm; Speed reliving his early childhood as a budding young motorhead, his deep kinship with his brother, his superhuman aptitude for racing, and most of all, the tantalizing glimpses of both Speed’s first major win and his first time on the track ever, sitting in Rex’s lap while they hoon around impossible corners at even more impossible speeds. The whole thing looks and feels like the figments of a young child’s dream living out their lives on the world’s most radical Hot Wheels track. Only when you see it come together, you get the feeling that movie isn’t emulating Hot Wheels; Hot Wheels was somehow trying to be this movie, years before it even existed. Speed Racer’s trailer isn’t a sales pitch. It’s a thesis statement. And what a statement it is.