You might be surprised to learn that a cinematic adaptation of the classic “Speed Racer” cartoon has been in the works at Warner Brothers since 1992. Countless names have been attached to the project -- Johnny Depp, Gus Van Sant, Alfonso Cuaron, J.J. Abrams, Hype Williams, and Vince Vaughn to name a few -- but no one was able to get the project off the ground. That is until fallen-angel directors Larry and Andy Wachowski (still recovering from the beating they received in the aftermath of the ‘Matrix’ sequels) signed on to bring ‘Speed Racer’ to the big screen. The rest, they say, is history. The Wachowskis' colorful production was released into a critical firestorm that derided every scene, trivialized every visual, and insulted every actor involved. Yet despite overwhelmingly negative press, I was left wondering: could it really be that bad?
‘Speed Racer’ tells the tale of, you guessed it, Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch), a young throttle junkie itching to restore his family’s reputation after his older brother Rex (Scott Porter), an international record-setter, followed a dark path and was tragically killed in a cross-continental circuit race. Thankfully, Speed’s parents, Pops and Mom Racer (John Goodman and Susan Sarandon), recognized the source of Rex’s turn and raised Speed to follow his heart instead of money or the corporations that dominate racing. However, when a smarmy industrialist named Mr. Royalton (Roger Allam) tries to woo Speed away from his family’s ideals, the young prodigy discovers his favorite sport has been rigged by wealthy fat-cats for decades. With the help of the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), the elusive Inspector Detector (Benno Furmann), his girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), and the family’s trust mechanic Sparky (Kick Gurry), Speed secretly enters the same race that killed his brother in an attempt to earn a spot in the league’s Grand Prix. His goal? To reveal Royalton’s fraud and racing’s widespread corruption.
’Speed Racer’ isn’t a live-action adaptation of a cartoon, it is a live-action cartoon. Like its source material (and any other animated nonsense you might stumble across on a Saturday morning in the ‘80s), the film’s racing sequences abandon physics, clarity, and narrative flow, while quieter scenes tend to ignore subtlety, emotional complexity, and proper character development. As a result, your reaction to the rainbow-swirled, syrupy toothache that is ‘Speed Racer’ will depend entirely upon your expectations and tastes. Purists will enjoy the haphazard frivolity of the experience far more than inductees looking for a casual modernization of a dated anime series. Likewise, anyone who loves escapist entertainment will dig the over-the-top, stylized action, while those endlessly searching for ‘Matrix’ sequel redemption will once again be left in the cold. Complicating matters, younger viewers will adore the audacious visuals that fill each and every frame, while serious cinephiles will scoff at the script’s underlying lack of substance.
Even so, it’s extremely important to note that the Wachowski brothers never intended to deliver an elaborate reimagining of the classic series, but instead wanted to produce a dense recreation of its ludicrous, fast-talking insanity. To that extent, the directors succeed. Personally, I ate up the heated confrontations between Speed and Mr. Royalton, the family dynamic between Pops and his sons, and nearly every scene in which Racer X makes an appearance. In fact, there are entire sequences that are a blast to watch unfold. Watching Fox take on a battle rig in a race car, Goodman fight a ninja, and Hirsch hurtle down a cliff gave me severe flashbacks to my childhood and forced me to set aside my irritable inner-critic, even if for just a moment.
I should also mention that my son emphatically responded to the Wachowskis’ kinetic style and kid-friendly imagery. Sure, his attention drifted every time the film slowed down and focused on overblown conversations and behind-the-races corporate intrigue, but his eyes would go wide and his grin would return the minute an engine revved or someone shouted Speed’s name. I suppose my overall satisfaction with the film has a lot to do with his positive reaction, but I also think the Wachowskis did a decidedly good job of porting the dynamic tone and energetic atmosphere of the original series to the big screen.
Unfortunately, even those who are able to trudge through the film’s abundant gloss and enjoy the end product for what it is will still emerge with quite a few complaints. For a flick that panders to kids, ‘Speed Racer’ is too long, suffers from far too many expositional conversations, and overpopulates its story with dense subplots involving industry corruption. Worst of all, Spritle (Paulie Litt) and Chim-Chim are given too much attention and are more annoying than they were in the original cartoon series. Granted, the mischievous pair are easy to ignore and occasionally work within the framework of the film. However, in a case of Jar Jar Binks syndrome, there are times (particularly when they distract from a tense encounter at Royalton Industries, interrupt a chat between Speed and Trixie, and hijack the flick’s final shot) that the troublesome twosome completely disrupt the tone of the film and undermine any weighty drama its directors manage to achieve.
Could ‘Speed Racer’ be a better film? Sure. Would it be faithful to the original series if it were any different? I doubt it. Therein lies the problem. ‘Speed Racer’ will never appeal to the majority of adult viewers simply because the Wachowskis chose to recreate the zany, illogical nonsense of the series instead of trying to reshape the source material into a more digestible product. As it stands, anyone searching for serious cinema will hate this rather extravagant adaptation, but anyone craving the warm nuzzle of nostalgia, the lure of mindless racing sequences, or the safety of an entertaining family flick will probably have a decent time watching ‘Speed Racer.’
’Speed Racer’ features a stunning, jaw-dropping 1080p/VC-1 transfer that, in my humble opinion, puts some other high-scoring Blu-ray releases to shame. The film’s palette isn’t just vibrant, it’s vivid enough to induce a fair share of migraines. Primaries pop off the screen, blacks dip into deep and inky territory, and the neon glow of the cityscapes are truly a sight to behold. Contrast is dead on as well, rendering clean whites with bright intensity, skintones with warm but natural hues, and well-delineated shadows without any distracting mishaps. Of course, these strengths would all be for naught without an equally impressive display of fine detailing and texture clarity. Distant skyscrapers are crowded with windows and pinpoints of light, the smallest snowflakes are crisp and flawless, and the slightest scratches in an ice tunnel are a cinch to spot. More to the point, depth is incredibly convincing and the picture boasts a three-dimensional, picture-window effect that simply can’t be explained in words.
Best of all, there isn’t a hint of source noise, edge enhancement, crush, or significant artifacting of any sort. If pressed to come up with a nitpick, I could point to some infrequent color banding, as well as a few instances of soft facial textures (the result of an intentional CG effect used to make older actors appear younger during flashbacks), but the issues are so negligible that they fail to detract from the overall experience. For my money, this is reference quality video that deserves to be discussed in the same breath as other exceptional BD transfers. Regardless of how you feel about the film itself, I challenge anyone to shrug off such an outstanding technical presentation.
To my dismay, ‘Speed Racer’s BD audio isn’t nearly as extraordinary as its video transfer. Blatantly disregarding logic, marketability, and sonic potential, Warner Brothers has decided to slap a standard Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track onto a film that should deliver an aggressive assault on your sound system. Yes, LFE support is still strong, the rear speakers still have plenty to do, and dialogue is still intelligible and well-prioritized in the mix, but I have to ask… what are we missing? To my ears, the low-end pulses sound muddy, treble tones aren’t crystal clear, and the film’s ambience isn’t as refined as I hoped. When I caught ‘Speed Racer’ in theaters, I remember being bowled over by the intricate surround work and blaring bombast of the film’s soundscape. However, with the Blu-ray’s compressed audio track, I didn’t encounter anything that resembled that engaging experience. I wasn’t able to immerse myself in the soundfield, I wasn’t fooled by many realistic pans, and I simply wasn’t wowed by the presentation.
It’s always possible to be duped by preconceived expectations and fall victim to marketing placebo, but I refuse to believe that this is the best ‘Speed Racer’ can sound. I’m sure some fans will accept this standard track without question by assuming Warner didn’t want to sink any more money into a relative critical and box-office failure. However, the three-disc nature of this release proves that the BD edition had a considerable production budget. Why Warner valued a digital copy and a video game over a high-end audio track is beyond comprehension.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘Speed Racer’ comes with the same feeble supplemental package as its DVD counterpart. There's a bonus arcade game included on a second disc (detailed in the next section), but it doesn’t change the fact that the features are too short, over-produced, and awkwardly sidestep the particulars of the film’s reception.
’Speed Racer’ is by no means a perfect film, and it certainly won’t appeal to everyone, but I found its escapist abandon to be relatively charming and its faithful adherence to its source material quite refreshing. Hollow fluff? Perhaps, but it was a fun romp through sugarcane fields that my son and I enjoyed. Unfortunately, this new Blu-ray release is a mixed bag. It features a striking, reference level video transfer, but falls short with a standard Dolby Digital audio track and a weak smattering of supplements. All in all, ‘Speed Racer’ is worth a look for its high-def visuals alone. I just wish Warner had decided to pair the transfer with an equally spectacular TrueHD or DTS HD MA mix.