Friday, March 22, 2013

Analysis of a flop: Speed Racer (2008)

Boring story time. Stick with me. I was in a shop one day buying up a bunch of used DVDs and I noticed a copy of Speed Racer on the bottom shelf. It had a price tag that said 50p. I surmised one of two things. Either it was massive pricing error by some rookie shop assistant or the shop was just really, really desperate to get shot of it. So I took pity on the film and added it to my pile without much more thought. I remembered that critics gave it terrible reviews when it was in cinemas and lost a lot of money for Warner Brothers (Wikipedia lists it as the 8th most expensive flop of all time!). But I'm always kind of curious about expensive, messy flops. I'm the kind of person who's equally quite happy to sit and watch car-crash movies like Street Fighter or Super Mario Brothers or quality cinema. I figured at the very least I might see a couple of cool bits of CGI and then pop the DVD out after 20 minutes and use it as a coaster or frisbee. I mean the Wachowskis had gone seriously down hill in my estimation after their two cloying and self-indulgent Matrix follow ups, this was probably going to be even worse. How. Wrong. I. Was.

The film sees Emile Hirsch play Speed Racer - no seriously that's his actual name - an up and coming driver who competes in insane races that take place over rollercoaster-like circuits. Though he's ably supported by his family he gets introduced to a wealthy businessman called Royalton (Roger Allam) who offers to give him corporate sponsorship and take him to the top. However, at the same time, Royalton explains that all major league races are fixed and he will be expected to win only when told to. Speed turns him down and decides to reach the end of season Grand Prix on his own. Royalton is furious and tries to sabotage Speed's career so in retaliation Speed secretly begins working alongside the "corporate crimes division" of the police. He works together with a masked driver called Racer X (Matthew Fox) - who may be his older brother who supposedly died in a car accident(!) - to not only get enough criminal evidence on Royalton to bring him down but also keep his racing career on track.

Speed Racer is a completely misunderstood film that deserves reappraisal. Behind its gaudy exterior the film actually has a lot of surprisingly mature elements. I don't mean violence or swearing or anything like that. I mean that considering it is a kids film it deals with some quite grown-up concepts like the over-commercialisation of sport, behind the scenes corruption and even intellectual property rights! There's a lot of story that gets told over its 2 hour running time. The Wachowskis also employ some quite sophisticated cinematic language. For example, the film opens with by showing two races. One in the present that Speed is competing in and one in the past that his brother Rex competed in. The film cuts back and forth between the two but there's no sepia tints or heavy dissolves to show which is which. It's all done by clever and imaginative camera work and what could have otherwise been a mess of footage is instead a very dexterous and easy to follow piece of film.

The race scenes themselves are brilliantly realised and never less than heart-in-your-mouth experiences. I didn't watch the original anime as a kid but you can tell that the Wachowskis have made the races as faithful as possible. The tracks are bizarre and surreal twisting all over the place in cartoon-ish fashion. Everything is eye-searingly colourful and with it being nearly completely CGI the Wachowskis can afford to put the camera in very dynamic positions. Usually the problem I have with CGI heavy films is that there's a weightlessness to the action but Speed Racer makes no attempt to make anything realistic so this never factors in. The Wachowskis go the extra mile to make the world of Speed Racer completely cohesive by even blue screening in the sky!

Roger Allam is wonderfully over-the-top as the bad guy Royalton. The rest of the cast are good too but Allam in particular stuck out. Though the film is a live-action cartoon and most of the performances are exaggerated the actors manage to avoid being anything close to grating or annoying. John Goodman gives a much more measured performance as Pops than he ever did as Fred Flintstone. The one exception is Spritle and Chim Chim (Speed's kid brother and pet Chimpanzee) who have a series of wacky sub-plots that a lot of reviews hated but I didn't actual mind these. For one, they acted as a nice break from the main story every now and then and secondly I think I'm more attuned to watching Japanese anime so I'm used to huge shifts in tone that characterise the format.

Speaking of tone, what really makes the film a good piece of cinema is that there's heart to it. I don't mind admitting that
I was genuinely a little choked up at the end when Speed is driving in his final race and he reminisces back to when he was a little kid and snuck down to watch races on TV in silence with his dad. It was kind of a sucker punch because I didn't expect the film to have such an emotional backbone to it. The film builds nicely to an emotionally cathartic climax in much the same way that any sports film should - from Rocky to Happy Gilmore.

I guess I should take a second to look at why the film did flop. I think part of it is that it's a difficult thing to explain to the audience. They see the posters and figure it's just some bad mind-numbing kids film when actually there is some depth underneath all the glitz. In a lot of ways Speed Racer is a film that's out of step with the times. Blockbusters nowadays a grim, gray and dour affairs just look at The Dark Knight or Transformers. Also there's very few films that are actually aimed at young kids anymore. Everything is PG13 or 12A. I don't like the movement Hollywood is making to make "one size fits all" movies. There should be kids films, and teen films, and grown up films. 

The reviews for Speed Racer I also felt were a little unfair. Lots of critics seemed to have ripped it to shreds because of its perceived oxymoronic nature. They suggested that the film's message of the evils of Capitalism (in the form of Royalton) was at odds with its $200 million budget and probably extensive tie-ins and merchandise. I can see their point but I think it could be levels at many, many other films. Speed Racer probably just looked like an easy target because it was so colourful and expensive.

All in all, 
Speed Racer is a lovingly crafted piece of kitsch retro nostalgia. It's an undeniably goofy film but it's played with sincereity by its cast. I'm kind of glad it flopped because I think as much as I enjoyed it I wouldn't want to see an endless array of sequels (and we all know the Wachowskis track record on sequels). The bottom line is this. Yes, it's colourful. Yes, it's hyperactive. No, it's not a bad film. It's surprisingly good. Go see it.



  1. Im with on this one Jack, I went to see it to theaters and had myself a good time, I remember the backlash of bad reviews, but I was always defending it! I remember having these extensive conversations on movie chat boards about it.

    It could have flopped because of its anti capitalist message, or because its an "old" cartoon that not many people remember, kind of the sameway that Astro Boy flopped or The Phantom or The Rocketeer. It's not in the memory banks, it's gonna flop. Even if its a good film.

  2. I have very fond memories of my mom introducing my brother and me to Speed Racer when we were young, so I knew I was gonna enjoy the movie on some level. I had no idea how moved I would actually be by it, especially since I view most CG-heavy live action movies as being somewhat sterile and emotionless. I actually got a little teary-eyed at the end. It was exactly the Speed Racer I remembered, and then some.

    Like Francisco already said, a movie's box office intake is not directly related to its quality. Heck, Dredd is great proof of that. If you enjoyed a flop, then all that means is that your tastes differ from the Hollywood mass market, which is far from a bad thing.

  3. Franco: yeah, I think that probably had a lot to do with it as well. People really aren't interested in anime adaptations regardless of their quality. I can't think of one successful one. Dragonball, AstroBoy, Speed Racer, Guyver.

    Doug: That's so cool that your mum was into Speed Racer. I'm hoping to pass loads of my favourite cartoons down to my kids too. I had the exact same thing with the ending of Speed Racer. Such a great emotional pay off.

  4. I loved watching the old Speed Racers cartoons in reruns on Cartoon Network as a kid. I haven't seen this movie yet but I liked the colorful visuals from the trailer and it looked like a live action cartoon.

  5. I love this movie with zero reservations.

  6. Chris: Definitely find the time to watch this at some point. I think you'll be surprised with how good it is. Would be interested in seeing you review it at some point.

    Zack: Me too. I'm waiting from Criterion to get off their ass and re-release this.