While most of us would agree that an attempt to bring a cartoon to life as a live-action film and make it appealing is far more complex than it might seem, First of all, you have to overcome a lot of prejudice towards animation in western audiences. Most western adults still are not on board with the art form. For the most part, American audiences still consider animation ‘kid stuff’ and unworthy of their attention because it’s not sophisticated enough. I have friends that love science fiction that refuse even to consider watching anything animated. They seem to forget that science fiction, in general, until recently in some quarters was considered a joke and only meant to amuse children.
Making this ‘live action’ film more cartoon-like may be what doomed it back then. These same people that shun animation are in deep denial when it gets pointed out that a large portion of the movies they love are sophisticated CGI, a form of animation, and that a lot of the films they enjoy are, in fact, animated films. Now add to that that Speed Racer got based on a Japanese cartoon created in the 1960s. One can begin to understand the complexities of that situation and how it might present problems in getting contemporary western audiences to appreciate this material. Transferring ideas intended initially for people with different cultural (Japanese) sensibilities into something that western audiences can understand would be difficult enough, and something is bound to get lost in translation, but add to that its material from over half a century ago, and you begin to see the problems involved. It becomes a sort of period piece too. Speed Racer is a loving tribute to Japanese pop culture and the cartoons they love that went underappreciated by western audiences.
The film’s creators undoubtedly thought that America’s love affair with cars would translate to success at the box office, but things did not work out that way. Many complaints about this film have to do with its over-the-top and copious amounts of CGI, along with the film’s writing. In my opinion, the film’s art direction is likable enough, and I do not have a problem with the film’s script either. Since they made this film, CGI effects are in wide use and, for the most part, is no longer a problem you hear much about anymore.
For those not familiar with the original Japanese series, Speed Racer, also known as Mach GoGoGo (Japanese: マッハGoGoGo), is a Japanese media franchise about automobile racing. Mach GoGoGo got initially serialized in print in Shueisha’s 1966 Shōnen Book. The television series is an early example of an anime becoming a successful franchise in the United States, spawning multiple print and broadcast media spinoffs. The show got watched by a total estimated 40 million viewers in the United States during the 1960s–1970s.
For whatever reason, the Wachowski’s decided to tackle these challenges in a unique manner. The result is not only a tribute to what originally started as an odd Japanese cartoon brought to life as a live-action movie. It’s a more ambitious attempt to make the live-action movie itself into a cartoon. It’s an idea that is only partially successful. The result is an occasionally bizarre mish-mash of action and cornball humor inside a riot of primal colors that are 2008s visually dazzling, sometimes dizzying Speed Racer. This film is an attempt to bring a cartoon to life and to bridge the two art forms into something original and new. Of course, the near-insane races are a big part of this experiment. And represent a good chunk of this film. They are seemingly video game-inspired laws of physics-defying and dazzling affairs that demand the viewer’s attention because they fly by so fast that you might miss them if you blink.
I’m a lifelong fan of animation. And when I refer to the original Speed Raver series as odd, I mean strange on several levels. Technically and culturally, it was unique. While the series had engaging characters, the show was only semi-animated. It was close to being a motion comic and not really what one usually thinks of as a fully animated cartoon. It’s remarkable how closely this film mimics the style of the original series. Because I felt I had more sophisticated tastes in animation back then, it was a series I mostly only followed because there was nothing else in the time slot I considered worth my attention. Still, there was something about the show I liked more than I could admit to myself at the time, and that something I realize now was the flavor caused by it being from another part of the world and being different that I enjoyed.
Speed Racer had a unique style unlike anything else on TV at the time or since. The series character designs were unusual, too, with extraordinary villains that Dick Tracy villains may have influenced. These characters got given touches that gave them an international flavor because Speed traveled the international racing circuit and encountered characters from around the world, almost like a motorized Jame Bond. Like the animated series it’s based on, the movie has a not-sophisticated narrative. It’s important to remember these are stories from another time and place. The simple story told in the film is another version of the classic good vs. evil with plenty of melodrama and lots of good old-fashioned idealistic thinking in play and where family is always of utmost importance, not unlike a specific other franchise involving racing cars.
Not familiar with this title? Speed Racer is a 2008 sports action dramedy film written and directed by the Wachowskis. It got based on the 1960s manga and anime séries of the same name. Starring Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox, Roger Allam, Benno Fürmann, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rain, and Richard Roundtree, the plot revolves around Speed Racer, an 18-year-old automobile racer who follows his deceased brother’s career, choosing to remain loyal to his family and their company Racer Motors, which causes difficulties after he refuses a contract that E.P. Arnold Royalton, the film’s chief villain, and owner of Royalton Industries, offers him. The cast does an excellent job bringing these cartoons to life, and there are standout performances by Goodman and Ricci.
Revisiting Speed Racer last night, I found this action and humor-packed film entertaining and somewhat fun. I wanted to do a piece on this because I feel a lot of the reason this film got undeservedly maligned IMO is that people just don’t get it and that a lot of what may seem odd is actually. Because this film mimics a very bizarre source material that was an almost ancient TV series from a different culture with different sensibilities, it seems strange. And that just possibly some of the enjoyment to be found here got lost along the way in translation. Maybe it’s time to give it another chance.