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Blu-ray Reviews
Blu-ray Disc reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Speed Racer (Blu-ray Disc)

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Speed Racer
2008 (2008) - Warner Bros.
Released on Blu-ray Disc on September 16th, 2008

Dolby Digital

Film Rating: B+
Video (1-20): 19.5
Audio (1-20): 16
Extras: B-

So Warner's Speed Racer Blu-ray Disc just showed up on my doorstep this morning, and as the title streets next Tuesday, I wanted to get this review up ASAP. I'm not going to talk about the movie itself here, as I did that plenty in my review of the DVD version the other day. So let's get right the main event: Is the quality good, bad, what I'd hoped for, or the bane of my existence as a fan of this film? The best way to put it, I think, is that Warner has managed to surprise me significantly more than I expected given the disc's lackluster specs (on paper).

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. Trust me, I'm watching this in native 1080p on a 110" screen, and I really had to look for it. 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. All this makes your purchase decision a little difficult. If you're a fan, and/or you just really love looking at eye-candy HD video, the disc IS worth having... provided that you can find it for a good sale price. If you're an audiophile, on the other hand, not so much. I really do think the film deserves to be seen, however, and I'm confident that your kids will go crazy for it. So if nothing else, Speed Racer is definitely worth renting. And who knows? After giving it a rent, you might just decide that it's better than anyone gave it credit for. I'm betting that Speed Racer will find a much more welcoming audience in time, on DVD and Blu-ray. I sure hope so, because I'm certain that there's a tremendous Blu-ray special edition version of this film yet to be released. And if that never happens, it'll be a real shame. At the VERY least, I hope that Warner revisits this Blu-ray, as they did recent with Superman Returns, in a version with the TrueHD track the film deserves.

Bill Hunt, Editor
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