With the release of a new Wachowski movie Jupiter Ascending this weekend (look for my review Monday) it felt like a good time to bring up my favorite of their films, 2008’s Speed Racer.
Speed Racer is one of the best movies ever. It’s a damn near perfect film that brilliantly accomplishes every single objective it undertakes. I’m sure that right about now you’re probably thinking that I’ve lost my mind. You remember this terrible TV show that you maybe saw on Cartoon Network but never watched. You might even remember seeing the previews for this movie and coming away with the opinion that it looks really awful. Wondering why they would even make a film off this silly cartoon. I can’t fault you for any of that. This was my exact reaction. When this movie come out I wrote it off as stupid and childish and never went to see it. But I’m serious. I haven’t lost my mind. Speed Racer is great. I’m here to tell you we both made a big mistake when we passed it up.
Fortunately, years later when I started reading more and more movie opinion pieces I noticed that critics whose opinions I respected really loved the hell out of this film. I still didn’t believe it, but it was enough for me to finally give the movie a shot. I’m so glad I did.
It’s really difficult to talk about why this movie is so great, because it’s so many different things all at the same time. Film Crit Hulk, in the article linked above, described the movie as an amalgamation and I can’t think of a better word to describe it. Speed Racer is doing so many things all at the same time. It’s a racing movie, it’s a childish kids movie, it’s an adaptation of a Japanese cartoon, it’s a drama, it’s a scalding criticism of sponsor-ships and the business of professional sports. It’s all of these things and more. The movie skillfully navigates all the tonal shifts that are required when you make a movie about so many different things.
Speed Racer tells the story of…Speed Racer, a young car racer in a futuristic cartoonish world where car racing is closer to F-Zero than Nascar. Speed has been in love with racing since he was a little kid. His father, Pop Racer and uncle own a business building cars and his older brother, Rex, was a famous up and coming racer. When Speed was a kid Rex suddenly left the family team and went off on his own, becoming a hated, violent driver that was considered a pariah of the sport before he was tragically killed in a racing accident. At the start of the film, it’s now Speed’s turn and he could possibly be the best thing in the sport since Rex Racer. As long as they don’t destroy him first.
The opening 15 minutes of the film feature some of the best world/character building I’ve ever seen. By the end of Speed’s first race, we know everything about him, his family, his girlfriend, his defamed older brother, and the complicated relationships between all of the characters. It’s effortlessly done, with minimal exposition and powerful imagery. By the end of those 15 minutes I was sold on this movie.
As touched on above Speed Racer was written and directed by two of my favorite film-makers, the Wachowskis (The Matrix Trilogy, Cloud Atlas) and the best thing about the movie is how seriously they take this world. Speed Racer is saturated with bright colors; most of what we see is (intentionally) cartoonish CGI (there weren’t any actual cars at any point in this movie). It’s goofy, childish, and an obvious throwback to the Japanese Animation style that the cartoon was known for. But it doesn’t play any of these things as a joke. Sure, the movie has its funny moments, but it’s not making fun of itself or it’s style. It takes the world and the central conceit seriously, and therefore so do we. This all allows the these rapid tonal shifts the movie demands to actually work.
The Wachowskis really love to build and play in these crazy new worlds we’ve never seen before and this film is definitely no different. What makes this work, though is the movies are always rooted in something relate-able that carries us through it. In Speed Racer it’s that the film has so much heart. This is a movie with tons of it, all grounded in the relationship between Speed, his father, and his brother. To quote the film, to them racing is more than just a sport, it’s a religion. And when their family and their religion is challenged, they will do anything to protect it and the sport they love. Speed is racing against the corporate sponsorship that is ruining the sport. He’s racing against the ghosts and mistakes of his brother. He’s racing for his Pops and what the sport represents. And at the end, he’s just racing for himself because it’s the only thing he knows how to do. Speed’s final lap at the end of the movie is one of the most narratively satisfactory things I’ve had the privilege of watching. The entire film has built to this one moment and the payoff is just beautiful.
Speed Racer is a truly great movie. I’ve tried really hard convincing you here and I hope I’ve done enough that you’ll at least give it a chance. Bottom line: silly fun, amazing action, redemption, fast cars, and through it all, so much heart. This movie has it all and it’s one of my all time favorites. See it. Guys. Seriously.
Go Speed Racer Go!