I saw this film a long time ago so it was time for a revisit. I remember watching some of the old Speed Racer cartoon back in the day. It was definitely pretty fun as the show balanced out the races and the anime stakes pretty well. I can’t think of another racing anime where the main character had to take on armed assailants off the track. This film does a pretty reasonable job of adapting the show, but relies a lot on exposition rather than showing us what’s happening. The races are hype, but end up carrying the film.
Speed Racer is determined to be the best racer of all time. That is actually his name by the way so he has a lot to live up too. His brother died in an unfortunate accident a while back after he had slowly been turning to the underworld. His reputation is tainted and Speed Racer’s family has been trying to pick up the pieces ever since. Speed decides to let his brother keep the local racing record, but he still wants the championship. The problem is that corporate business is making a lot of money off of this and they plan to rig the championships. Speed is either in with them on the deal or they’ll destroy him. Can he prove that races are about heart and effort or will greed and money save the day?
First I want to give the film some credit for the world they built around the characters. It really looks like something out of a cartoon with how bright and colorful it is. The backgrounds are obviously fake of course, but whether it’s a set or CGI, it works really well. It doesn’t clash or anything and I’d like to see more films go with this approach. Imagine Dragon Ball Evolution actually having a Capsule City background? I can imagine this approach may not be too popular with critics if it’s over done, but embracing the cartoon route is always a good move if you ask me. Especially since this film dials the effects up to 11 when it comes to the racing and action.
As mentioned earlier the races are quite good. It’s like watching a live action F-Zero as they race down the neon tracks and dodge all manor of attacks. Missiles and other crazy gadgets are attached to the cars. (Quick shoutout to the video game. It perfectly captured every aspect of the movie’s races) You’re at the edge of your seat here and I’ll take this kind of fantastic car battle over the more realistic Fast and the Furious shots any day. The Mach 5 really feels like an ultimate car and gets the respect it deserves. If the whole film was packed with races it would have been really cool.
Unfortunately there are many times where you feel like there aren’t enough race scenes in the movie. The whole first half of the film is essentially speech after speech after speech. The characters just never stop talking and at times this can get old really fast. The film’s writing is certainly not its strongest suit and I think the movie worried too much about trying to paint a picture for the audience. The plot isn’t exactly complex so it should be explained rather quickly. Dragging it out like this just makes me wonder if the writers were confused.
The humor also wasn’t that good here. Spritle and the chimp really didn’t need to be in the film. It’s not as if they added anything to the story and that is unfortunately the problem with most comic relief characters. They just aren’t funny. The more the film tries to make them funny by adding joke after joke, the more forced it all becomes and that makes it backfire.
As far as the cast is concerned, it isn’t bad. Speed makes for a decent lead as he stands up for what’s right and adapts to the cheating competition. I don’t agree with him holding back on the first race though. If anything, Rex would be proud of Speed surpassing him without having to resort to the dark side. I suppose it’s a nice thing to do though so I won’t fault him for that. Speed should probably suspect Racer X’s true identity, but since it was plastic surgery, that makes it all a lot more convincing than it would have been otherwise. (Although to be honest, he looked the same to me and I wouldn’t have guessed there was any plastic surgery) Speed can also fight when necessary even if he isn’t quite strong enough to handle the ninja.
As expected, Racer X is a great character and the best by a longshot. At first you do have to wonder how they can possibly justify Racer X mowing everyone down during the races, but since they were all paid off by the main villain, it makes sense. It’s not as if he’s destroying them either since defeated racers float away in a jello bar. His fight scene with the ninja is one of the stand out moments of the film since the fight scene is actually impressive and played straight. That’s definitely the kind of battle you’d like to see here since the cartoon did have some action as I mentioned earlier.
Trixie is a good main heroine. It’s always nice to see someone standing up to the bullies right from the start. The romance between her and Speed isn’t handled well as expected, but it could certainly be worse. At least she is a likable character so that puts her ahead of some of the others. I thought Sparky got the shaft here since his role was incredibly small and he wasn’t likable at all. I don’t remember what his personality was in the TV show, but I’m inclined to think that he was a lot better there. Here…he just didn’t serve much of a purpose.
The main villain, we may as well call him Mr. Corporate, was okay. He basically checked off all the boxes on how an evil CEO should act. It was interesting to see him try to rig the races, but you can see why it’s such a dangerous game. If even one racer goes too fast or too slow, all of the money he invested is pointless now. Once Speed was in the game, I would have tried to get a refund instantly. He’s just too much of a wild card. The other antagonists like the Chinese CEO and his racer didn’t really serve much of a point. I do think the heroes didn’t do a good job with the plan since it was so easy for them to be portrayed as well. I suppose they’ll be better prepared for the next time though and the villains were inspired by Speed’s race so it all worked out in the end. I’d be game for a sequel if it could work out the negatives.
Overall, Speed Racer succeeds at the main thing it was trying to do, having good races. Unfortunately, you can’t rely on that to carry the whole film forward if the dialogue and story get just as much of a focus. It’s not a bad movie by any means, but it just could have been a lot better. It’s a striking contrast between the dynamic racing scenes and the talking moments. It can be goofy in a fun way at times like the corporate villain coming in for pancakes or just in an obnoxious way like with the monkey. The film couldn’t find that perfect balance which drops it down a star, but is still an entertaining film if you want to watch Speed Racer on the big screen. A sequel or at this point reboot since that’s more likely, just needs to keep up with the races. They don’t need to change anything about that. For the human scenes, they either need to cut down on the exposition since it really hurt the film’s pacing at times, or they just need to get some all star writers on board. Take out the extra humor as well and you’ve got a quality movie. Nintendo should take the plunge and make an F-Zero movie to show these guys how it’s done.