Comic Book Movies 101: Speed Racer

The bright lights, multitude of colours and fast-paced action of Speed Racer is a lot like Rainbow Sherbet: okay in small doses but a lot can cause a stomach ache. Directed by the brothers Wachowski, the film is not shy in pushing boundaries and technologically speaking is remarkable.  However this being said it was panned by the critics and was a box office failure. It is the risk you run if you try new techniques, its often costly and also rather alienating for a family audience. I would expect nothing less from the dynamic duo.

In all honesty I believe the film attracted a niche audience and was therefore judged unfairly. Before The Matrix ‘nerd’ was not cool, this changed and when the Wachowski brothers released V for Vendetta it cemented many peoples image of them as alternative, grungy and graphic novel loving. Unsurprisingly this niche went to watch Speed Racer, an adaptation of 1960’s Japanese manga Mahha Go Go Go but this film was designed to appeal to children and failed at entertaining grown fans of the original series.

The film is live action and centres around Speed Racer, the protagonist and middle child of the Racer family. Early in the film Speed idolises his older brother Rex, who under pressure from dark, barely legal corporate sponsors leaves home. Rex dies soon after in a cross country rally.  Now a man, Speed is racing his own circuits and in turn is idolised by his little brother Spritle. I can see a pattern forming.

Speed has the same choice as his brother, abandon his father’s sponsorship for a corporate sponsor in the form of Royalton Industries. He does not take the deal making himself the target for the darker side of racing. Modified cars, homicidal drivers and seedy gangsters conspire to undermine Speed. However Speed has the law and a maverick driver called ‘Driver X’ on his side. His new allies pressure him into the same race that killed his brother but now Speed is beginning to suspect that the masked, part-time vigilante ‘Driver X’ may indeed be his brother Rex! In a world where race fixing is common place and cheating gets you anything- Speed Racer uses talent and a good judgement to deliver himself the dream of driving in the Grand Prix.

The reoccurring issues with brotherhood and family are not unique to the live action film but present in the manga too. The characters depend upon their family when all else fails them, all apart from the shadowy ‘Driver X’ who is the estranged brother Rex Racer.  Rex pays a high price in the film, being portrayed as lonely, suspicious and inevitably drawn to help the Racer family plight. The mirroring of the relationships between the brothers fails to underline a deeper message about righted wrongs. Instead it makes the characters appear two dimensional and badly written.

An example of this underdevelopment is the youngest brother, Spritle. He loves watching racing but never shows interest in actually getting behind a wheel, he is loud and irritating, especially in comparison to the young Speed Racer. His sidekick is a chimpanzee called ‘Chim- Chim’ who is treated like one of the family. Not only are the characters highly distracting from the tension of the film but their purpose is unclear.  While they were present in the original source material I suspect that a more objective director might have cut them entirely.

On another note the mistrust of capitalism is very interesting. In the film the character Royalton provides sponsorship and therefore the cars to an array of drivers. He is depicted as an unscrupulous megalomaniac. He attempts to fix races by coercion and bribes in order to benefit from the subsequent rising share prices. The police are closing in on this man and his kind but seem unable to do so without enlisting the help of civilian drivers.  Royalton is  a representation of greed, again this makes him appear underdeveloped as a character and therefore no threat to the hero.

As I have mentioned before the film is based on a manga series and it suffers as a result. The manga was a hit when it was released. It was developed into a TV anime series and was broadcast internationally across the pacific in America however that was 40 years before the live action film was made. The audience; the fans had grown up and moved on. It is difficult enough to adapt a contemporary anime series to live action, as is the case with Deathnote,  without alienating the fans. With that sort of time gap there is no doubt in my mind that this was a sinking ship from pre-production.

Speed Racer was a risk, the Wachowski brothers attempted to bridge the issues in the storyline with super flash effects. HD footage allowed the post production team to tweak the visuals, giving definition to everything in the scene, imitating a hand drawn manga panel.  Perhaps I am bias but I prefer the depth of focus that a camera can reveal. If you are going to replace the characters the fans know with living people then realism is obviously not the issue. In my opinion the bright images look unrealistic and flat, which is not ideal when you are working with fast moving racing cars.

All in all this film, is watchable and enjoyable for the younger members of the audience. I would recommend it as a viewing but it is not worth adding to your top DVD shelf. Looking to the future the next outing of the Wachowskis’ is Cloud Atlas, which I anticipate as being awesome.  Their resume is becoming more eclectic with each new release. They say you can’t keep a good man down, perhaps the same is true of directors, time will tell.

Lauren Hounsome

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