Speed Racer came out when I was in 5th grade. I still remember it vividly, it was a sugar rush of glittering colors and sticky Happy Meal toys. And it all seemed so simple back then. Nothing was more important to my best friend and me; Speed Racer was all that mattered. We played the DS games and the Wii games because the DS games were not enough. We collected all of the toy cars, and Google ‘Imaged’ as many unblocked promotional pictures as we could find at school. I look back on these memories in the rearview window of my life, and I can only smile. Sometimes these memories are closer than they appear.
I have not seen Speed Racer since 2008. And to tell you the truth, I was afraid to rewatch it. I was afraid that the 22-year-old watching it now would be different, that I would not resemble the child I once was. But I was wrong. The Wachowskis have directed something truly timeless, a movie that reminds us of one simple fact: childhood is never lost with age. We may get wrinkles and gray hairs down the road, but childhood is more of an outlook, a way of dancing in the face of bleary-eyed cynicism. The Wachowskis have masterfully captured this happiness. It is like coming home from school on a Friday afternoon, and falling half-asleep to Totally Spies! on channel 45. Cool beans…
Speed Racer is not a very subtle movie. It is on the nose and ham-fisted like all silly Saturday morning cartoons should be. I remember laughing so hard through the late 60’s Speed Racer cartoon at a sleepover. It was the painful kind of laughing, the kind that leaves you feeling sore. If a cartoon could hiccup, I would imagine that Speed Racer drank one too many sodas because the dubbing and animation were off, to say the least. But it is a testament to the TV show’s charm, and the Wachowskis have bewitched this adaptation with the same magic.
The story is a familiar one. We follow Speed and his family as they navigate the corrupt corporate underbelly of the racing world… a second time. Rex Racer, Speed’s older brother, did not make it out alive when he first started out (or so they thought). And this tragic passing has haunted the Racer family ever since, leaving them as independent as Racer Motors can ever be. You see, Speed is not interested in signing with any slimy sponsors. He loves his family and art more than any purple laced lifestyle.
The one thing that nearly all children’s movies celebrate is family. It is almost so obvious a theme that it is not very obvious to begin with. But very few directors handle the subject with as much love and kindness than the Wachowskis. Do not let the zany presentation of Speed Racer deceive you, there is something real here. It is as real as a mother’s love, as meaningful in its simplicity as a proud glint in a father’s eye. And while this movie might be best remembered for its look, I remember it for the character moments.
After all these years, I can still remember Racer X encouraging Speed at Thunderhead to continue racing. I remember how quiet and necessary it all felt. This scene lasts for two minutes, and yet we feel the suspense, disappointment, and tragedy of Racer X’s situation; one emotion after the other, with each emotion as complete as the last. Looking back on it now, nothing has changed. Matthew Fox is still just as good as I remember him to be. He masterfully communicates everything with Rex’s eyes but speaks in Racer X’s words. This moment, as well as many others, are not patience-testing loading screens for the next spectacles either. Instead, these scenes have enough heart to speak to both children and adults, without ever talking down or patronizing either’s feelings.
Some might remember Speed Racer best for its aesthetic. Now I understand people’s reservations, but CGI does not always have to be the bad guy. CGI is often considered a necessary evil, devoid of any creative intent or purpose… not for the Wachowskis. They have a much more loving disposition to the virtual world. They relish those 100101010 digits, and savor them for what they can build. It is because of computers that we can experience the greatest feelings of freedom and adventure as we step into unrealized worlds. It might sound absurd, but practical effects do not belong here, this futuristic world is too bedazzled in chrome for puppets and reality checks.
But I did receive one. My first reality check came a few weeks after the premiere of this movie when my best friend had moved. It felt so permanent, as if life had taken on airs of seriousness after that. The transition between childhood and adulthood is not as abstract as a child might think, it is as real as the signs of age in a mother’s love, in a father’s tired eyes. I thought that I would never be able to watch this movie with the same joy ever again. But like I said before, I was wrong. Speed Racer is still exciting, no matter what other people might say. Some things never change, some people hardly ever change either. This box office flop and my continued friendship are in some ways proof of that constancy. So yes, I do think Speed Racer deserves reappraisal.
Speed Racer is available on Blu-Ray and Digital HD.
The film stars Emile Hirsch, Matthew Fox, Christina Ricci, Paulie Litt, Susan Sarandon, and John Goodman.