In 2008, the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer movie made its box office debut. At the time, I was eager to make an outing of it, but by the time anyone wanted to go watch it with me, it was already out of theaters in my city. Over the years, I watched its reputation go from “beloved by a select few” to “cult classic” to “criminally underappreciated gem too advanced for its time” in the eyes of the public, yet for whatever reason I never sat down to actually experience the film myself. Now, 14 years later, I decided to right this wrong, and I’ve come out of it wishing I decided to do this sooner.
Speed Racer is based on the 1960s anime of the same name (known in Japan as Mach Go Go Go), and follows a guy (literally) named Speed Racer. Coming from the appropriately named Racer family, Speed loves cars and driving, but his entry into the circuit world comes tinged with memories of his controversial dead brother, the ex-pro Rex Racer. When Speed is propositioned to join an elite racing team under the auspice of one of the top sponsors, it sets him on a moral and literal battle between cynical big business and genuine passion—through racing, of course.
So many articles and reviews have been written about the Speed Racer film at this point that I doubt anyone needs me to convince them to watch it or give it a second chance. That said, as someone who’s watched a lot of anime (enough to blog about it for nearly 15 years!), I found Speed Racer to be entertaining and engaging in multiple ways without a shred of irony. The movie often looks intentionally flat, as if they had taken animation cels and replaced the characters with real people. The races are intensely energetic, but I never found them difficult to follow, and they always served a very clear narrative purpose to convey specific themes about how the characters like Speed see the world or racing. Not surprisingly, the fast pace at which information is integrated into the greater world, combined with its simple but memorable characters, reminds me of a different anime that is without a doubt descended from Speed Racer’s legacy: Redline.
The divisiveness of Speed Racer as either the greatest thing or an unwatchable mess comes down to a number of qualities, but I think characterization is a big bone of contention. If you’re looking for fully fleshed out beings with layers and layers of complexity and moral ambiguity, this film has maybe one or two of those, tops, if I’m being charitable. Otherwise, you have a literal monkey mascot as comic relief that the Wachowskis could have jettisoned Tom Bombadil–style, but they actively chose to keep. What Speed Racer has in spades, however, are characters as embodiments of groupings of emotions, and the film shows how these feelings drive their decisions and their ways of being. Speed has a number of times where he has to make tough moral choices, but they’re always through the lens of “How does it affect the love of racing that is core to his being?” The characters are very intentionally two-dimensional, and not for the worse.
When the film’s ending credits begin to roll, a remixed Speed Racer theme plays that starts with the Japanese lyrics of the Mach Go Go Go opening, and it feels indicative of how much the film seeks to pay homage to its artistically influential original that captured the imagination of so many people. It’s a clear love letter to the original, but stands on its own as a visual spectacle that drives its story through its aesthetics. For those who can take the step forward to meet Speed Racer where it’s at (or are indeed there already), what awaits is one of the best adaptations of an “anime” feeling to a film of flesh-and-blood people.