One of the first cartoons that led to the Wachowskis life-long love of Japanese animation was Mahha GoGoGo, translated into English and retitled as Speed Racer. In 2007 they started the steps to make a big screen adaptation, using a mixture of live action, green screen and animation to try and stick close to the feel of the original cartoons.
Speed Racer, as the name suggests, is about Speed Racer (yes, that really is his name), a boy who is obsessed with motor racing thanks to his family's involvement in the World Racing League and the on-track success of his big brother Rex. Taught to drive at a young age and even sharing the cockpit with Rex on a drive around the local racetrack, he is heartbroken and ridiculed at school by everyone except best friend and girlfriend Trixie, when Rex leaves home, turning his back on the small independent Racer Team in favour of corporate backing. Rex becomes a bully on the circuit but is killed in a crash which devastates his family, particularly Pops, the patriarch and chief mechanic.
Speed follows in his brother's shoes, proving to be a great driver and attracting the attentions of Royalton Industries and their head, E.P. Royalton. Forced to choose between joining the successful corporation and all the guaranteed victories it would bring or sticking with his family-run outfit, Speed chooses the latter and is told that he won't win a single race, let alone finish one, as the corporations fix the races to suit them.
Speed is approached by Inspector Detector, the head of a unit investigating corporate corruption, and Racer X, their man on the inside. Speed agrees to join them to protect his family from financial ruin and restore the good name of racing, hoping to win the Grand Prix and sweep Trixie off her feet.
Speed Racer is perhaps the most unabashedly extreme visual film ever, containing colours that I previously didn't think existed and some jaw-dropping, gravity-defying racing sequences. I've never done acid but I imagine some of the sequences are something like taking a trip - the film begins with the Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow logos appearing through a kaleidoscope and this continues right until the end credits, which are throb in different shades of neon.
The everyday world has a Barry Sonnenfeld look to it, with a weird 1950s Americana style but with vastly oversaturated colours. All the costumes, production design and set decoration have a retro feel which bizarrely doesn't clash with the futuristic aesthetic of the races. There is also a great blend of the cartoon with the real, combining actors with a mixture of 3D and 2D animation, creating an amazing visual spectacle.
This is one of the finest looking Blu-ray Discs I've seen, very different from other standard bearers like Cars and Baraka, but amazing in the clarity, hue, contrast and sense of speed.
Sadly Warner have only seen fit to include 'normal' Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks (in six different languages) - it defies belief that there is no HD audio option as the visuals and the race sequences scream out for the increased bitrate and depth that Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD MA would have provided. As it is, the soundtrack isn't bad and allows you to immerse yourself in this weird universe where the car is king, but it's such a disappointment that there is no HD audio. Occasionally the soundtrack levels didn't seem to be consistent with some dialogue that was quieter that the other scenes and a little muffled. There are multiple subtitling options - the English is very good - but it's scant consolation.
Spritle in the Big Leagues is a tour the set in Germany with Paulie Litt, who plays Speed's younger brother Spritle, and feels contrived and artificial as he 'accidentally' bumps into people whilst sneaking around and asks them what they do. Some of the information is interesting but it's rather odd that elements of his wardrobe are blurred out so you can't see the logos - in one case his whole baseball cap is a blur! Litt isn't the best of hosts and I would have preferred a more structured piece than this.
In Speed Racer: Ramping Up! various members of the cast and crew talk about the filming process.
Speed Racer: Supercharged! is a look at the cars and racetracks of the WRL - an entirely animated affair that began to bore me and hurt my eyes due to all the spinning vehicles so I didn't even watch it to the end.
Speed Racer: Car-Fu Cinema shows you exactly what takes place in the animation process and how the 3D designs become fully fleshed out race sequences.
Just as the lack of an HD audio option was a shame and missed opportunity, so was this - just rehashing the same material that's on the DVD, even presenting it in standard definition. My guess is that, just as they did with The Matrix Trilogy, the Wachowskis are keeping some material back in case the home video market is a big seller and they can release a special edition with all the bells and whistles.
Speed Racer is ostensibly a family film, centred on a young race driver and his family so younger children will enjoy the exploits of Speed's brother Spritle (and his chimpanzee Chim Chim) and older viewers can latch onto the overtly political subtext, which slams corporations as greedy and corrupt. The long dialogue scenes and moral wrangling will undoubtedly bore younger viewers so DVD/BD is the perfect format as these can be skipped en route to the next race or action set piece. The wholesome Americana of Speed Racer permeates the film even down to the drinking of milk on the podium and the whole story is one of good over evil and Speed wondering if Racer X could possibly be Rex.
The Wachowskis were probably still reeling from the kicking that the last two matrix instalments received when they took up the Speed Racer project and it won't have helped that it received a critical mauling and bombed at the box office - it seems that only now, with global returns in and money from DVD/BD sales that Speed Racer will break even.
This is a vastly ambitious project with only about a month of shooting and the rest of production taking place entirely inside computers. They have cast well with Emile Hirsch well suited to the titular role and John Goodman and Susan Sarandon very good as his parents. I found that Goodman was able to distance himself from the last cartoon-to-feature film adaptation where he played Fred Flintstone, some 14 years ago. In the supporting cast there are some survivors from V for Vendetta (scripted and produced by the Wachowskis) such as Roger Allam who played the 'face' of the tyrannical government and plays a similarly evil character here as the head of the corrupt Royalton Industries and Ben Miles returns to play a commentator.
I actively avoided this at the cinema as I thought I'd hate it and, although Speed Racer isn't a perfect film and there are plenty of flaws, I found it to be great fun and the visuals are stunning - my retinas are still in recovery - certainly not deserving of all the negative reviews. This was an opportunity to push the boat out and produce a disc that would show what Blu-ray is all about but the paltry extras package and average audio setup is a real let down. It's worth watching simply for the jaw-dropping visuals and, like me, you may even find you like it.