Their first film since they ended The Matrix trilogy, Speed Racer was The Wachowski Brothers triumphant return to theater screens…or so they (and Warner Bros.) hoped. With a budget of $120 million, the film was a box office failure, bringing in just short of $90 million worldwide. Touted as a big and loud racing film for the family, Speed Racer didn’t click with critics, nor did it bring in the audience it had hoped. Children were too young to know who Speed Racer was and their parents likely didn’t want to sit through the seizure-inducing visuals that the trailers promised.
Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) has known nothing other than racing his entire life. Working on cars while still in diapers, Speed barely made it out of high school before his focus turned entirely onto cars and racing them. Making a name for himself, Speed eventually finds himself on the end of a major corporate deal that would land him in a financially comfortable area and give him everything he could have dreamed of. Although tempted, Speed declines and sets into motion a series of events that has him surprised by just how vengeful and evil the corporation that ruined his family in the past really is. With plenty of races and high-speed thrills, Speed Racer is one of the summers brightest films—in more ways than one.
I, along with most everyone who read the announcement, wondered just why there was going to be a movie made about Speed Racer. What exactly did that franchise have that deserved to be brought back? I’d seen the cartoon only occasionally and it was nothing I really cared about, but with the Wachowski’s involved I was inclined to take a look at the film. While it got lambasted and had some absolutely abysmal box office returns, I still was interested in what the film had to offer—especially based on the crazy visuals that the trailers showed off. I have to say that, despite it running over two hours in length, there wasn’t a minute I regretted spending with the film. It really was just a lot of fun to watch.
That’s something that’s key to keep in mind when going into this film—it will be fun first and foremost. There is a ton of zany visuals that absolutely blew me away and actually had me on the edge of my seat (especially that final race…Good Lord was that an eye feast), but I actually got quite invested in the characters and storyline of the film. Yes it was juvenile, yes it was absolutely ludicrous and devoid of any real content, but as hokey and predictable as it was, seeing the Racer family deal with what was going on around them was actually interesting to me. In the end it’s just about one lone boy fighting against an evil corporate empire, but even if you don’t want to get into the psychology of it all, the film is just a fantastic and entertaining two hours and fifteen minutes to spend in front of the screen. Although I will admit to be slightly confused by what was going on in the first half hour of the film—they slammed so much content into such a small amount of time that I was getting sensory overload just from the information being presented. Still, it all became clear in the end, so no harm no foul.
Although I’m sure many will find them the weakest point of the film, the characters in the film really were a highlight for me. I usually complain about characters with a lack of depth, but somehow even these characters here that we see for a brief amount of time actually come off as fully developed and fleshed out. In the case of Trixie (Christina Ricci), who we see very little of in the film, you get a sense of why she’s with Speed through thick and thin and even the mechanic, Sparky (Kick Gurry), seems fully developed in an odd way. Perhaps it’s just because the characters are so simple that they fit into pre-conceived ideas of who these characters should be and their moral set, but whatever the reason I never felt lost when one of the characters showed up on screen and acted out. I will admit that Spritle (Paulie Litt) and the monkey did get a bit obnoxious, but it’s a children’s film at heart after all, so it was easy to take them with the rest of the themes of the film. While it’s very much a children’s film, I honestly think there’s a lot for adults to enjoy too if they can tap into their love of cheesy dialogue and ridiculous plots. For me, Racer X (Matthew Fox) was nothing short of a pure bad ass in the film and I enjoyed seeing Fox out of his Lost element, still playing the hero but being a bit darker at the same time. You saw the plot “twist” with him coming a mile away (probably ten miles away if you knew the history of the show; I didn’t, however), but it didn’t make it any less satisfying when it happened. For my money, you just can’t beat the team of Racer X and Speed Racer—absolutely brilliant.
Of course you don’t come to this film for the characters or plot—it’s the CGI that will reel you in, if anything. The film is quite honestly about one step away from being a bad acid trip with how much green screen and CGI is tossed into the mix. At times I actually became confused as to what exactly was green screen and what was fully on-stage and something able to be interacted with—it was that interwoven with one another that it just blurred together. It very much looks like a live-action cartoon in every sense and I’m sure that will turn people off, but for me it was just something else to love about it. Between the outrageous races in the film that made the Pod Race in The Phantom Menace look like dirt, Speed Racer certainly astounded from a visual standpoint and is very much every bit as enjoyable as other CGI infused films that follow a similar pattern, if not more so. If nothing else, see the film for what the Wachowski’s pulled out of their heads this time around—there’s little bullet time, so don’t worry about an overuse of slow-mo, because they really found a new trick in the book to use: blinding the eyes with so many different pieces of color that it makes your eyes want to throw up. That’s not a bad thing—I actually remarked to someone while watching it that the film was so visually appealing that it went from being eye candy to an actual piece of candy that I wanted to eat. That may sound strange, but trust me—you’ll know the feeling once you start watching this.
I can definitely see why the film was poorly received—it honestly is too niche in nature to find a full audience in theaters. Adults don’t want to see it in fear of being bored to tears and kids have no history to go off of. There’s been no Speed Racer cartoon on the airs for decades now and no amount of product pushing from Wal-Mart was going to make kids care anymore about the film. It’s a shame it was ultimately a failure, but I have hopes that it will find an audience on the home video format and even pick up fans down the line. It’s not comparable to the Wachowski’s break out The Matrix in the least and no matter how corny the dialogue and situations in the film may get, Speed Racer is just pure, unadulterated fun to watch. I can only imagine what this was like to see in IMAX—that must have been a situation similar to getting brain freeze. Highly Recommended.
Arriving on DVD and Blu-ray day and date, Speed Racer arrives in a single disc edition in both releases (although the Blu-ray release will include the digital copy on a separate disc, of course). For this film we get a very small amount of extras to flip through, which is a shame as if it had performed better at the box office I’m sure we would’ve received a full three-disc blow out. Sadly we get a rather ho-hum array of extras to watch and a rather boring presentation in terms of packaging and menus. The single disc DVD arrives in a standard amaray case that includes an insert for the Hot Wheels Speed Racer line as well as the activation code for the digital copy of the film. The disc art is actually slightly different from the cover art, as it just features Speed in the Mach 5 on a different racetrack (the image of the car is the same as the one on the cover, however). Menus are simple and easy to navigate with no real confusion setting in (that takes place while watching the movie).
The video for the DVD release is an admirable effort, but the array of colors and speed at which the film moves along is definitely the weakest point for the transfer. There is a wealth of blocking during the high speed sequences and compression is abundant during the races, especially the desert sequence. It’s hard enough on the eyes with the amount of colors in your face as is and the DVD transfer was just good enough to hit the “fair” mark. I’m sure the Blu-ray transfer will make my jaw drop, but there’s simply too much in the individual frames of this film to be something that can actually be successfully transferred over in the file size required by the DVD format. The audio mix makes up for where the transfer falters, as the Dolby Surround 5.1 mix is nothing short of absolutely engrossing. Races are loud as they should be, but dialogue remains clean and clear so there’s no straining of the ears to understand what everyone’s saying. It’s a great mix which, once again, I’m sure will be eclipsed by the Blu-ray version.
For the extras…well…yawn. “Spritle in the Big Leagues” (14:33) is an on-set tour of the Speed Racer sets and is presented in letterboxed widescreen. What sucks about this extra is they tease a Comic Con panel, but we don’t ever get to see more than a few seconds of it, so you know there were more extras they could have tossed onto a second disc. Still, this on-set tour isn’t bad, although it is a bit childish in nature and we really only get to see the main actors in the background, with Spritle’s actor (Paulie Litt). The only other extra is “Speed Racer: Supercharged!” (15:41), which sounds awesome at first until you realize it’s just a bunch of 3D models and movie footage of the various cars used in the film with narration by some random dude. This one is disappointing in more ways than one as it seems to be directed at the audience of children who likely won’t be seeing this one.
Overall a poor DVD release that is only worth owning if you really enjoy the film. Give it a Rental first to see if you like it enough to own it, but with a less than impressive visual transfer and absolutely pathetic extras, this one will only find a home in the collections of those who really enjoyed the film (like me).
Speed Racer arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on September 16th.