DirectorLarry & Andy Wachowski
Release Date(s)2008 (September 16, 2008)
It should come as no surprise to any of you that I really love The Wachowskis’ Speed Racer, especially if you’ve been reading this site over the last few months. As a kid, I was just a humongous fan of the original Japanese animated series. It was my first experience with anything from the gadget crazy island nation, and I ate it up eagerly. So when a live-action film was announced by Warner, after many previous failed attempts to bring it to the big screen over the years, I was more than a little leery. How in the world could any filmmaker do the series justice? Then, when I heard The Wachowski Brothers were involved, that worry lessened substantially. If anyone could get it right, it was them. And get it right they have.
The story of their big screen Speed Racer will be familiar to anyone whose seen the original 1960s cartoon. Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is a wunderkind driver with the coolest race car in the world, the Mach 5. His father, Pops (John Goodman), is a genius car designer with racing in his blood. He’s got a supportive Mom (Susan Sarandon), a fun kid brother (with a pet chimp) and his gal pal Trixie (Christina Ricci) is always at his side. Speed lives in the shadow of his older brother Rex (played here by Scott Porter from Friday Night Lights), who was killed in a car crash years before. Speed’s exploits at the local track earn him a lucrative offer from the head of Royalton Industries, who wants Speed to join his World Racing League team – the best of the best. But Speed prefers to stay loyal to his father instead, and soon learns that Royalton and other companies are fixing all the races. His offer refused, Royalton sets out to ruin Pops and make sure Speed never finishes another race. But just when all looks lost, the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox from Lost) and Inspector Detector arrive at the family’s doorstep with an offer Speed can’t refuse: A chance not only to race, but to bring down Royalton and his cronies once and for all.
I should say right now, up front, that this movie isn’t going to be for everyone. Like the original Star Wars back in 1977, high-minded critics are going to pan this as representing everything they’ve come to hate in the cinema, all flash and no substance. But I’m here to tell you, just as they did back then, most of the critics are getting it wrong. Speed Racer is a gas. Unabashed fun. Over the top, trip you out, goofy, blow your mind fun. The fact is, sometimes as a moviegoer you just want to turn off the Thinkin’ Cap, strap in and hold on tight. You want to take the ride, feel the thrill and enjoy it for all its worth, every penny’s worth. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that, critics be damned. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The Wachowski Brothers weren’t trying to make Citizen Kane here. They were trying to make the best damn Speed Racer film they possibly could, with all that entails... and they’ve succeeded brilliantly. On top of that, they’ve managed to push the visual language of film another big leap forward.
To say that The Wachowski’s have done something different here is massive understatement. Nearly every effects house in the business was involved in the making of this film, and it shows – it’s two hours of straight eye candy (it’s also no coincidence that the DP is David Tattersall, who shot Star Wars: Episodes I-III). Speed Racer is as visually revolutionary as The Matrix films were before it, except this experience is the opposite of The Matrix in almost every other way. Whereas Matrix was dark, gritty, and Byzantine in its complexity, Speed Racer is bright, glossy and unashamedly simple. This is a pure popcorn family film, through and through. In fact, kids are going to go bat-s--t crazy for it. Not just boys who love Hot Wheels cars either, but I think girls will get a charge out of this as well. In terms of suitability, there are two or three curse words (one of which is beeped) and one of the characters flips a bad guy the bird. And that’s it. There are a couple of fight scenes, but they’re very stylized and no one dies. Even the car crashes (and there are dozens) are tame – the drivers all bounce free of the explosions to safety in balls of rubbery “Kwik-Save” foam. This is pretty safe PG material, so don’t be afraid to take your kids. They’ll have a blast.
Who else is this movie for? Well, if you enjoy The Wachowski’s unique cinematic perspective, you’ll enjoy this film. If you want to see something truly new, here it is. If you love racing and ever played with Matchbox cars, buy your tickets now. If you’re young and/or young at heart, I think you’ll dig it. Most importantly, if you loved the original animated Speed Racer, you will love this. The Brothers absolutely nail the tone and spirit of the original. There are so many little touches right out of the cartoon. All of the family relationships are here, but the great thing is that they’ve been expanded and fleshed out in a lot more detail. And you believe them – there’s real heart here, genuine emotion (decent values are on display here too, like choosing family over fame and fortune, and standing up for what’s right, even when it’s difficult). Remember the Mammoth Car? It’s here – Racer X duels it in the Shooting Star! Remember all those bad guys from the toon – Cruncher Block, Snake Oiler, The Grey Ghost? They’re here too. There’s even a moment when Speed finishes a race, where he leaps out of the Mach 5 and strikes the classic pose right out of the cartoon’s opening credits (the original Bullet Time shot). I’ll tell you when the movie got me: For about the first half of the film, I’m sitting there just trying to absorb it all (this film is massive visual input, almost to the point of overload). Then there’s this scene where Ninjas burst into the hotel suite where Speed and his family are staying, hoping to put Speed out of action (and thus out of the race). One of them backs up into Pops, who grabs the guy with his beefy hands. Suddenly, there’s this quick shot of the ring on Pop’s hand. I’ll be damned if it didn’t say Greco-Roman Wrestling State Champion! Pops picks the guy up and spins him over his head... and that was it for me. I almost fell out of my seat laughing. That’s a moment straight out of the cartoon, just for the fans, and it’s perfect. (The only difference being that in the original show, Pops was a member of the “Westside Grunters and Groaners” – same difference.) Even composer Michael Giacchino’s score nails the mark, taking dozens of cues from the original show and expanding them into full-blown orchestrations that are a perfect match to the visuals. In a nice nod, the closing portions of the score even include samples not just from the animated show’s theme song, but also from the original Japanese theme (so whenever you hear “Mach a-go-go!” you’ll know why). By the way, original Speed voice actors Peter Fernandez and Connie Orr do have quick cameos as race announcers in the film, so be sure to watch for them.
The 1080p widescreen video quality is, in a word, spectacular. Yes, you read that right, and I’m not exaggerating either. This transfer is absolutely outstanding. Now, I first saw this film projected digitally in 2K resolution in the Ross Theatre on the Warner back lot, and no screening I saw thereafter ever came close to that dazzling level of presentation quality. This film is eye-popping in its hues, movement and detail, and it’s tailor made for digital presentation. Photochemical film just doesn’t do it justice, even in large-format IMAX. And let me tell you, Speed Racer has never looked so good to me since that first digital screening... until I saw this Blu-ray this afternoon. It’s just damn near perfect, and I guarantee it’s better than anything any of you saw in the theatres. Colors absolutely burst off the screen, contrast is outstanding and detail is spot-on. You’re going to notice that some DNR was used here and there – you’ll notice it on faces, in particular Mom and Pops Racer – but that’s not something that was done for Blu-ray. I noticed it in that original screening. It’s a stylistic choice on the part of the filmmakers. But trust me, the detail everywhere else is crisp and exactly as it should be. There is some very light digital compression artifacting here and there, but it’s very well hidden by all the fast movement on screen. Speed Racer is right up there with the best Blu-ray video I’ve seen yet.
So how did Warner get the video looking so great? Well... there’s the catch. They throttled back on the audio quality and extras. This is a BD-25 disc, so it’s clear to me that Warner’s technical folk basically said to themselves, “Okay, we can’t do everything perfect on a BD-25, so let’s nail the video and get everything else as good as possible with the disc space that’s left.” As most of you know by now, Speed Racer on Blu-ray Disc doesn’t include lossless audio – no TrueHD track. Ditching lossless audio allowed enough disc space to make the video a home run. Unfortunately, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio you do get just isn’t up to the level of the video. Now, don’t get me wrong... it’s a tremendous Dolby Digital track in its own right and, were this a standard DVD, the audio would rate top marks. Dialogue, music and sound effects are well balanced, there’s good LFE and the surrounds are lively. But it just doesn’t have the same scope as the video – the big, wide, smoothly immersive clarity that a TrueHD track would have provided. More than once I was pulled out of the presentation because while the video was just so good, it was obvious that the audio just wasn’t at the same level. Which is disappointing. For some, this alone will be enough reason not to buy Speed Racer on Blu-ray, and that’s a shame.
As for the extras on this Blu-ray Disc, there’s again good news and bad news. The good news is that they’re also a lot better than I expected. The bad news, of course, is that you don’t get much (about an hour’s worth of video material in all) and none of it is in high-definition. Included are three featurettes, only two of which are on the DVD. Spritle in the Big Leagues (15 mins) is a tour of the set and the various production departments, led by actor Paulie Litt, who plays Spritle. It’s definitely kid-centric, but you still do see a number of interesting things behind-the-scenes, including the costume, prop and art departments. Also here is Speed Racer: Supercharged! (16 mins), which I actually enjoyed quite a bit. It’s presented as if it’s a piece on the real World Racing League, and what it does is offer cool (and completely fictional) technical details about the twelve key teams and race cars seen in the movie (including Racer Motors), as well as the three major race tracks. You get to see rotating models of each car, as the narrator explains its various features. It’s extremely clever stuff. Here’s an example: “Sempre Fi-Ber made its name in cutting-edge digestive aids. It’s motto, First In, Last Out, has won over consumers of all ages...” The announcer goes on to talk about the non-regulation gear the team’s drivers have installed on their cars, including: “an Articulating Scissorator! And this titanium chopper ain’t for hedge clipping folks!” You get the idea. It’s pretty funny. My only real complaint about this, again, is that it’s not in high-def – I would really have appreciated the extra detail 1080p would have offered in seeing the CG car models. Finally, you get a featurette on the film’s CG effects, Speed Racer: Car-Fu Cinema (27 mins), that’s exclusive to the Blu-ray. This is pretty outstanding. You get extensive background on the conceptual philosophy and nuts-and-bolts production approach to the film. You get interview comments from tons of the technical folk involved in the effort (though not the Wachowski’s themselves, per usual). You also see just loads of original concept artwork, previz video, wireframe animation, and layer-by-layer dissections of how the images were created. It’s very meaty for a half hour piece. All of that is included on Disc One – the Blu-ray. You also get two additional DVD discs, one containing the Speed Racer: Crucible Challenge interactive game (which I’ll confess I haven’t looked at because I just don’t care) and the other a Digital Copy version of the film. I’m sure the game is cool, but I’m also sure that Speed Racer for the Wii and PS2 is better, so... you know.
The bottom line is that, even though this is a 3-disc set, you’re actually getting a lot less content than it seems. I happen to know that a lot of additional material was produced, but hasn’t been used, for this release. At the very least, there’s an additional featurette, The Amazing Racer Family, that was available on an exclusive DVD at Target that’s not here either. But what I really miss more than anything here is a really elaborate, packed gallery of conceptual artwork. It’s clear that hundreds of cool pieces of design art were created for this film, and it would be nice to have the chance to see them in really high resolution. Perhaps another day.
In the end, I still have mixed feelings about Speed Racer on Blu-ray, though it’s far better than I was expecting in some respects. I love the film, but while the video quality on this Blu-ray Disc release is everything I’d hoped for, the audio lacks oomph. The extras are also a bit of a mixed bag – great in terms of content, but the presentation is lackluster and too much disc space was wasted on the game and the Digital Copy, in my opinion.
I’m betting that Speed Racer will find a much more welcoming audience in time, on DVD and Blu-ray. The original animated Speed was goofy, vibrantly-colored, kinetic and wore its heart on its sleeve. This new movie takes those very same things and (respectfully) runs wild with them. As a lifelong fan, I was not disappointed. If you’re looking for Masterpiece Theatre... you’re in the wrong movie, boy. But if you check your higher brain at the door, and go in expecting to be dazzled and entertained... that’s exactly what you’ll get. This is pure, good-hearted fun. See it on Blu-ray Disc if you can. You might even be surprised to discover that it actually was better than all those critics said.