Top 12 Film Industry Stories of 2008:
#12: Speed Racer Stalls
By David Mumpower
January 7, 2009

Poor Speed can't believe the tragedy. No one came to see his movie.

Some ideas are doomed at their inception. Movie historians will debate whether Speed Racer qualifies under this umbrella. BOP's staff is evenly divided regarding the topic. Some of us believe that under different stewardship, a reincarnation of the classic show from our youth would have done at least as well as The Flintstones ($130 million domestically. The rest of us (and I fall into this category) feel that the original cartoon was just too weird for the average consumer. The manga style and oddities such as a monkey crew member and a hero who likes to rock a scarf 24/7 are just too foreign for most people. The one aspect upon which we all agree is that casting Christina Ricci is always a mistake.

How did Speed Racer wind up to be the catastrophe it became? Assuming it wasn't fatally flawed from the start, the problems may be traced back to the introduction of the Wachowski Brothers to the project. Five years ago, such a comment would have seemed blasphemous, particularly on BOP, but time has been unkind to the men who invented The Matrix. The problems began with the mixed receptions audiences had to The Matrix Reloaded, a movie I consider to be a masterpiece. Alas, a lot of people found that whole dance orgy at Zion disconcerting, and they were never recaptured by the magic of the Keymaker, Monica Bellucci's heaving bosom, or those creepy twins with the inscrutable accents. Sure, audiences showed up to the tune of $281.5 million domestically (and almost $750 million worldwide), but we know from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that selling a ticket is far from the same as pleasing a customer.

As we all know, the real sign that the Wachowskis had slipped came from The Matrix Revolutions. Many trilogy finales fail to reach the heights of previous entries in the series. Pirates of the Caribbean, Spider-Man 3 and Star Wars Episode III – Revenge of the Sith are but three recent examples of third films in a saga that failed to match the box office of either the first movie (Spider-Man and Star Wars) or the second (Pirates). Most movies are not like The Fellowship of the Ring: The Return of the King in this respect. But The Matrix Revolutions wasn't even close. It failed to make even half of its immediate predecessor, earning a pathetic $139.2 million compared to Reloaded's $281.6 million. In the eyes of most North American movie goers, the Wachowskis spit the bit in trying to tie up The Matrix. Any line of credit they may have earned with the first film was long gone.

Since the disaster of The Matrix sequels, the Wachowskis had kept a relatively low profile. Part of that was because of the...let's say lifestyle changes of one of them. The rest was that they didn't want to do a movie that was anything less than revolutionary in scope. In the interim since 2003, the brothers kept busy by helping others. First up was V for Vendetta, a high quality comic book adaptation that was a solid performer for their friends at Warner Bros. Its director, James McTeigue, was first assistant director on all three Matrix movies. The Wachowskis produced V for Vendetta with him behind the lens, and the overall project was a $132.5 million worldwide performance against a modest budget of only $50 million. Even better for the team behind The Matrix is that V for Vendetta was universally hailed as a good movie, helping reduce the stink of failure Revolutions had left behind.

In late 2006, Team Wachowski again solidified their relationship with Warner Bros. by attempting to save the day on The Invasion, a Nicole Kidman/Daniel Craig film. Original director Oliver Hirschbiegel had failed to film enough quality scenes to justify a production of this scale. Warner Bros. asked the brothers to re-write the story and assist in re-shooting some of the scenes in a more cohesive fashion. They again chose McTeigue to direct their work, but it was a lipstick-on-a-pig scenario. The Invasion's reviews were heinous and the $65 million production earned only $15.1 million domestically. Even so, Warner Bros. felt that the Wachowskis had done what they could to give an otherwise doomed project a chance.

Speaking of doomed projects given a chance, Warner Bros. signed on for a $120 production of Speed Racer. The key selling point would be familiar to all the fans of The Matrix. Revolutionary graphics would enhance a complex story, creating a visually stimulating film that would afford viewers a rare cinematic experience, particularly if they saw it in IMAX. Given how much The Matrix aided the early sales of the DVD market, it was easy to convince the studio that a similar graphics powerhouse could do the same for the winner of the next-gen DVD battle as well. A dual-pronged marketing strategy for theatrical and home video release was carefully constructed. Alas, the best laid plans of mice and surgically altered men...

In reality, all the whiz-bang special effects for Speed Racer did little to engage consumers who were already on the fence about any production with the Wachowski name above the title. Instead, the heavily Japanese-flavored cartoon led to a live action film whose appearance befuddled more than it engaged. Several critics were so put off by the stylized visuals that they couldn't even follow the story, which was problematic given that this is one of the most complex stories in recent memory. In the first eight minutes of the movie, time is fractured a dozen times. Simultaneously, Warner Bros. discovered a different problem. Despite the obfuscating nature of the screenplay, the movie was playing young. Very young. I'm talking Beverly Hills Chihuahua/Not Quite Ready for Hannah Montana young. Many adults found the entirety of the movie far too busy to the point that watching it felt like work while children simply engrossed themselves in the historically unparalleled visuals that reminded them of a live action version of Cars.

The end result is that Speed Racer failed and failed dramatically. Against an investment of $120 million, Warner Bros. could only recoup $43.9 million domestically and another $49.4 million worldwide. Due to the perceived quality of the title, its home video sales are thus far uninspiring as well. The title has made slightly less than $20 million during its three months in the marketplace, an okay result but far from the difference making one Warner Bros. had anticipated. What amuses BOP about the whole situation is that our staff is generally of the opinion that the Wachowskis delivered exactly what they had promised. Several members of our staff feel this is an A movie that deserved a much better fate. Unfortunately, the novel graphics of the title made the whole experience seem like a videogame cut scene that distracted viewers more than it enticed them, thereby making them unwilling to give the title a chance.

Where does this leave the Wachowskis? They're lying low for now, just as they did after The Matrix Revolutions. The only thing on their docket for now (other than denying that sex change rumor) is producing McTeague's next project, Next Assassin. Warner Bros. has stated that their relationship with the duo is still strong and they expect to work together again as soon as an acceptable project comes along. Given the boys' comic book roots, it's safe to say that they will be focusing upon something similar. Whatever that project may be, the brothers have assuredly learned an important lesson from recent events. Style over substance doesn't work if the style is considered distracting to the point of agitating, no matter how good the substance is.