I was a big Hot Wheels kid growing up. I had hundreds of them in a big plastic box, half of which were often crammed into my pockets to be played with in my “dirt collection.” One of my favorites was my beloved Mach 5, Speed Racer’s white race car with a brilliant red striped “M” across the hood. Despite its overused rusted wheels and worn paint, the Mach 5 was my favorite one. The ironic thing was that I had never watched Speed Racer in my life. It was my favorite because it was Dad’s favorite when he was growing up. When he bought me the little Mach 5, he told me it would be the fastest car I had. I didn’t have to watch the show to know that it was true.
“Speed Racer” was originally known as an animated Japanese show from the 1960s that was considered one of the early forms of anime. The adopted style was then transformed into a 2008 live-action remake, one that I recently had the pleasure of viewing 15 years after its release. In a world where the “marketing mouse” is set on re-releasing its treasured classics as low-effort, live-action remakes, I wasn’t too keen on sitting down and enduring 140 minutes of a remake of a show I had never seen, apart from the first two episodes.
“Speed Racer” follows the journey of a young Speed Racer (yes, that is his full, legal-given name) and his journey of becoming a professional racer, despite his father’s disapproval. Finding early success on the track, Speed is faced with the tempting offer to be sponsored by a corrupt racing company where he will ultimately be bought and used as a tool. Doing so could ultimately destroy his family’s livelihood and value. Upon his refusal, Speed finds himself racing in a rigged Grand Prix to prove that racing isn’t just about money and power while being hunted down by corporate goons trying to ruin the Racer family name. Atta boy, Speed.
Watching “Speed Racer” is like being flash-banged by lightning-fast neon frames, brightening my dark room like firecrackers in the night. It’s science fiction race cars flying around a wave-like track destroying every understanding of gravity, inertia, acceleration and every other law of physics. In fact, the unbelievability of the racing scenes in “Speed Racer” matches the style and cinematography of the movie. The whole film is a race, each frighteningly colorful frame flashier and more outrageous than the last. Who knew drifting around a hairpin at 200 mph could look so easy? Even the dialogue-heavy scenes are a maze of dramatic close-ups, slow panes of dire faces cartoon-like graphics that challenge the “Rocky” training scene montage (not really).
Amidst the chaos, “Speed Racer” still finds the time for slower, more methodical scenes that add meaning to its characters, especially Speed and Pops. There was an internal conflict the entire way, making Speed likable, relatable and rememberable, unlike most remakes in recent years. The film somehow manages to weave about ten different movie genres in a two-hour film, while keeping the exaggerated style constant. It blends the vibe of early 2000s sports movies, an Al Capone mobster-esque villain, Walmart Batman, ninjas, 60’s romance, “Mission Impossible” and somehow, “Spy Kids.” This isn’t a critique. This is a remark about confidence in a medium paying off.
As the credits rolled, I was surprised. “Speed Racer” does its job. It embraces the style of its animated counterpart and embodies the over-the-top nature of the early anime media. The movie works with what it was given, taking massive risks by defying the accepted forms of cinematography. In short, The Wachowski Sister’s 2008 “Speed Racer” just makes sense. Fifteen years later, the soon-to-be cult classic holds up today, even if it wasn’t my thing.
The trend with major entertainment corporations like Disney has been the same for the last six or seven years. They constantly pump out a remake of a beloved animated classic, hoping to trigger nostalgia, yet release a colorless, passionless movie that seems more chalked with political commentary than a character-driven narrative. More recently, the character arc seems to be a political commentary, ruining what warm memory of that character remains. This trend has even reached the non-animated classics. The first example that comes to mind is “Star Wars.”
After an onslaught of dozens of remakes, spinoff shows and movies, each “Star Wars” product is just as half effort and meaningless as the last. Marvel shows are the same. In the last 3 years alone, Disney has released dozens of Star Wars/Marvel productions, including seasons of new shows, movies and spin-off movies and that’s averaging a new show or movie of recycled content every month. That’s where the burnout begins. But the sludge must flow. Why? Because it’s more money for the Mouse.
But Disney’s animated remakes are just as frustrating. At least “Star Wars” tries to make something somewhat new. The animated films remade into live-action repeat the original story, only worse. They all seem hollow and soulless, stripping away the charm and magic of the characters to be replaced with realism, attempting to set a fictional fantasy story into the real world. It just doesn’t work. It makes it worse when you remember why Disney is just trying to milk the last drop from their golden age, polluting the memories of the good stuff, often regurgitating the same nauseous formula over and over again instead of creating something new and fresh.
This is where “Speed Racer” shines. It doesn’t try to take away from the unbelievability of the concept and it matches the energy, tone and outlandish character of the universe. The Wachowski Sisters accomplish this by slamming the gas pedal and emphasizing a style that never questions itself or its direction. The movie knows exactly what is doing and it does it very well. In an age of stale mainstream entertainment, “Speed Racer” is nitro induced breath of caffeinated fresh air that values the passion and creativity needed to produce such a unique piece of art.
So next time you consider watching the sixth reinstalment of “Peter Pan,” try out this soon-to-be cult classic.
“Speed Racer” can be rented on all streaming platforms and is free on Hulu+