Directed By: Larry Wachowski, Andy Wachowski
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox, Roger Allam, Paulie Litt, Benno Fürmann, Rain
Speed Racer adapts the cult 1960s Japanese animated series that aired in the US under the same name. Emile Hirsch plays Speed, the car-racing obsessed middle child in the tight-knit Racer family which includes father Pops (Goodman), an expert mechanic, mother Mom (Sarandon), and mischievous younger brother Spritle (Litt). As a child, Speed idolized his older brother, Rex, who raced independently after a falling out with Pops until he died in a crash surrounded by suspicious circumstances. Speed has grown up to be an accomplished driver himself, which attracts the attention of corporate bigwig Royalton (Allam), who wants to bring Team Racer into his fold. When Speed ultimately rejects the offer, Royalton responds with hostility, threatening to ruin Speed's racing career and mocking his belief that the sport is anything more than a tool for corporate interests. After Speed is aggressively knocked out of his next race, Team Racer is approached by Inspector Detector (Fürmann) and his mysterious agent, Racer X (Fox), to help them in their efforts to expose corporate corruption in racing. Speed and his ever faithful gal pal Trixie (Ricci) decide to go along with the plan even though it involves entering a highly dangerous road race in which Pops has expressly forbidden him to participate.
Fans of the cartoon show will likely get a kick out of the many clever ways in which visual references to the animation have been incorporated into this live action adaptation. Fans of good design, or even good taste, however, will be horrified by the assaultive and ugly production design which looks like someone swallowed a set of Crayola fluorescent markers and then vomited them onto the screen. This kind of color design started infecting animation in the late 70s and 80s, but was not a symptom of the original Speed Racer series. Rather than designing a primary and secondary color-heavy palette that creates an appealing live action cartoon world as was done without the benefit of CGI by Richard Sylbert for Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy film, production designer Owen Patterson gives us something that is aggressively ugly and hard to look at.
Arguably, the whole film is overdesigned, seeming to stem from a philosophical view that "too much is almost enough". The car racing/"car-fu" battle scenes, which should be the meat and potatoes of the film, are strangely unaffecting. While much of the action is clearly preposterous, such scenes could still have succeeded if the filmmakers had found a way for them to achieve their own reality. Instead, they have created sequences reminiscent of watching someone else play a video game, except with more unrealistic looking camera movements. The integration of live action and CGI is so unconvincing that one is left longing for the gritty realism of Spy Kids 3D: Game Over. Editorially, the filmmakers get caught up in their own shorts, making some scenes, such as the opening sequence juxtaposing past and present, unnecessarily complicated and other scenes, such as a heartfelt reconciliation between Speed and Pops, seem to drag on forever.
The decision by the filmmakers to make the whole production hard to look at is a shame, because there was the potential for a pretty fun kids movie buried deep inside this overlong and overwrought mess. Even though the actors are frequently overwhelmed by the production design, one can appreciate that the film is well cast. There are moments of juvenile humor good for a few chuckles, but like most elements of the film, they are oversold.
The film's garish palette is rendered with painful clarity by the 16:9 enhanced 2.4:1 transfer. There were a couple of instances where compression artifacts got out of hand such as a flashback scene where a distracted young Speed crashes into some hedges and the grass and leaves get pixilated for a moment, but these were the exception rather than the rule. The lack of chroma bleed is a pretty impressive achievement for this film's intentionally heavily saturated color scheme.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track encoded at 384 kbps imparts the expected amount of aural sturm und drang, particularly during the film's many racing sequences. Subtlety and refinement are rarely called for, and as a result, the relatively low bitrate does not hamper the effectiveness of the soundtrack to any significant degree. Alternate French and Spanish language dubs are also presented in Dolby Digital 5.1.
The disc comes with a modest assortment of extras consisting of two featurettes presented in 4:3 letterboxed video with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio and a digital download copy of the film.
Spritle in the Big Leagues (14:33) is a comically staged on-set tour led by juvenile actor Paulie Litt accompanied by occasional "Pop-Up Video" style text factoids. Aspects of the production explored include the prop department, the chimp trainer, the Racer family home set, the racing gimbal, the Art Department/Production design, visual effects, stunt/fight training, and the costumes. There is some interesting background information and behind the scenes glimpses, but not a lot of depth.
Speed Racer: Supercharged (15:41) is a review of the cars in the film constructed as if it were a documentary on the subject filmed in the world of the movie. It should entertain the Hot Wheels set, but will hold little value for older viewers.
The Digital Download is unlocked by a code included on an insert to the disc's case, but since it was not iTunes/iPod compatible, I did not bother to download it.
When the film is first spun up, the viewer is greeted with the following series of PSAs and promotional spots, all presented in 4:3 video with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound:
- Anti Piracy PSA using scenes from Casablanca (1:00)
- Fred Claus DVD Trailer (:32)
- Another Cinderella Story DTV Trailer (1:48)
- Speed Racer: The Videogame promo (1:05)
- Beetlejuice: 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition DVD/BRD trailer (1:26)
- Anti-Smoking PSA (:34)
The disc comes packaged in a standard Amaray-style case with a cardboard slipcover that reproduces the exact same artwork and text as the hard case with no additional embossments or foil enhancements.
While the makers of Speed Racer may argue that modern kids are sophisticated enough to follow breakneck editing and unrealistically swooping camera motion, I would counter that making them sit through two hours and fifteen minutes of it coupled with painfully unappealing design is downright cruel. It is the visual equivalent of force feeding them a six pack of Red Bull. The film is presented on disc with very good technical video quality, marred only by a handful of instances of compression artifacts, and a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that gets very aggressive during the multiple racing scenes. Extras consist of two kid-oriented featurettes, one with a behind the scenes look at the film hosted by Juvenile actor Paulie Litt and the other a faux documentary with a look at the various race cars and their drivers. A digital download copy of the film on the disc is compatible only with Windows and Vista/Playsforsure compatible portable devices.