Viking Night: Speed Racer
By Bruce Hall
April 1, 2014
What’s 40 minutes too long, looks like a bowl of skittles, yet has darkened so very many of my fondest childhood memories? If you answered “Speed Racer” then congratulations, you win the rest of this article. For the rest of you, I’ll elaborate. Speed Racer was a crudely drawn Japanese cartoon from the 1960s that depicted a near futuristic society based entirely on auto racing. Seriously, imagine if the entire world economy depended on NASCAR, and the racers just drove around in their cars all the time dressed in their brightly colored, flame retardant race duds. Also, imagine they spent their off hours plotting against each other and devising new and intricate ways to murder each other during races.
I know, that DOES sound pretty awesome. But the best part was that at the top of this cornball universe was the Racer family - Mom, Pops, and brothers Speed and Spritle. They live in a lovely split level home/auto garage with their mechanic Sparky and, for some reason, a monkey named Chim Chim. Occasional visits are made by Speed’s Platonic Girlfriend Trixie. Together, they’re the most successful racing team in the world - because they always play by the rules, stick by their friends, and honor the sport of racing as a matter of personal faith. With his super awesome car - the Mach 5 - and the occasional help of a mysterious ally named Racer X, Speed Racer wages a never ending battle for truth, justice, and jumping over shit in his car.
At least, he did for 52 glorious episodes. As a boy I discovered the wonder of UHF (Kids: it was the internet of the early 1980s) and a whole new world of really weird television opened up to me. The original Speed Racer lived on in syndication as I was growing up, and is singlehandedly responsible for my unhealthy acceptance of almost all things anime. The world famous(ly weird) Wachowski Brothers clearly shared my enthusiasm. Their re-imagining of Speed Racer captured the very small handful of things that made the original show captivating to prepubescent boys the world over. It also takes place in a near futuristic society based entirely on auto racing. It also spits on the laws of physics and is populated with hyper-stylized characters that all suffer from an unholy blend of ADHD and PTSD.
But now, they hold candy colored CGI races on tracks that look like something out of Tron. Speed Racer is one of those rare films that deserve acclaim just because you’ve never seen anything like it. I’m not even kidding when I say the whole movie looks like the inside of a bag of Super High Definition Skittles. At first, it’ll feel like your eyes are being raped. Then, once you’re used to it, you’ll get lost in it. It’s a visually astounding film that – at times – also captures the colorful, gleeful stupidity of the original show. Unfortunately the Wachowskis are a pair of incurable paranoids, so they felt it appropriate to take what should have been a fun, fast paced kids’ movie and marinate it in The X-Files. And what’s the result?
Speed Racer feels like a remake of Death Race 2000 made by Pixar, and based on an Oliver Stone screenplay re-written by Aaron Sorkin. In the original version there was never any need to explain how an auto racing based society came to exist. There was certainly never any attempt to explain why racers all hang around with each other all the time, driving their race cars around everywhere and dressing like comic book characters. And I don’t remember anyone ever telling me WHY every race devolved into a fiery murder-fest. They just DID. None of it was grounded in any kind of reality. But the Wachowskis want you to believe that Big Business and Greedy Millionaires are secretly controlling everything from the price of stock to how many marshmallows are in your bowl of fruit loops. There’s lots of racing, and lots of crazy-ass racers in Speed Racer - and it’s the same ludicrously hilarious shtick I remember from my youth. But the fun parts are punctuated by LONG stretches of self-consciously gaudy exposition.