Speed Racer is a successful version of what George Lucas attempted with the Star Wars prequels. Like those films, it’s ostensibly a “kids’ movie,” colorfully simple and CG-driven, with an aspiration to explore deeper philosophical questions beneath the surface.
In the ten years since the film bombed with critics and audiences upon theatrical release, Speed Racer has found defenders who discovered there’s a lot to like about the Wachowskis’ adaptation of the 1960s anime and manga series. The film’s non-stop kaleidoscope of bright colors and fast-moving images, the exaggerated style of the races and POV childhood imaginations create a visual tone as a distinctly unique language, mixing traditional film techniques with anime-style cuts and framing.
What keeps me coming back to Speed Racer aren’t the visuals, though — it’s the surprisingly socialist themes at the heart of the film. The central problem for our hero isn’t a rival driver, it’s the question "is my work worth doing if it's in a corrupt system?" Which is not what you’d expect from a movie about a boy literally named Speed Racer who wants to race cars at a velocity you might describe as speedy.
The characters are stock and their names define their personality -- Speed Racer, Mom and Pop Racer -- but they’re not lazy or undeveloped. They’re elegant, clearly crafted with thoughtfulness, and imbued with empathy. In particular, Susan Sarandon and John Goodman are reliably great, and Emile Hirsch gives his best leading role performance that isn’t Into the Wild. There’s a maturity and depth to these simple archetypes that we’re not used to seeing in this kind of presentation.
Just as the heroes are simply drawn but deeply felt, so too is the villain. E.P. Arnold Royalton, who does not appear in the original source material, is the centerpiece of what makes the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer so unique.
As the corrupt owner and CEO of professional racing’s most powerful corporation, E.P. Royalton is capitalism personified at its most crass. He sports no facial hair, but he’s as mustache-twirling as the Wacky Races villain — without the benefit of a dog sidekick. Royalton is literally the devil, and called as much soon after he’s introduced.
Royalton arrives at the modest Racer home like an earthquake, parking his purple private jet in their driveway. He comes with exotic gifts, prepared to recruit Speed into his massive enterprise of drivers. Mom Racer offers their unexpected guest pancakes, and he responds to the gesture by repeatedly insisting on buying her recipe, saying he’ll get his lawyers to draw up the paperwork.
Pop has always operated Racer Motors as an independent family-owned business, and he’s distrustful of money as power. In the wake of Speed’s big win, the newspapers make no mention of Pop’s company, even though they built Speed’s car. “That’s because sponsors control the media, Sparky,” Pop tells his mechanic employee, who he treats as family.
Later, when Royalton is able to get Speed into a room alone, he becomes vicious when Speed rejects his offer. He reveals the racing league that Speed’s family have built their lives around has been rigged since the beginning. The heroes Speed admired were willing shills, mere faces on a product designed not for sport or glory but purely for profit. Royalton tells Speed that he has no choice but to take his offer. If he doesn’t, he’ll ruin and destroy Speed and his family.
It’s a heavy scene and emblematic of the serious approach the Wachowskis take to the material. That earnestness is consistent even when the tone isn’t. Especially during Royalton’s big scene revealing the corrupt core of racing, which intercuts with Sprittle, the mischievous little brother, and his chimpanzee having a wacky misadventure, the tonal clash creates some cognitive dissonance and takes you out of what should be a fully devastating moment. Equal weight is given to the “teen hero in Mario Kart land” premise and the anti-capitalist themes, and it doesn’t always work.
It’s not like this is a flawless film, far from it. I mentioned earlier that Susan Sarandon kills it in the movie, but she does so with limited time compared to John Goodman. Christina Ricci’s Trixie gets more time but is somehow less developed than Mom Racer. The slapstick jokes are the biggest drawback -- they have a pretty low batting average, and unfortunately, there are a lot of swings. Comedy isn’t really the Wachowskis’ strong suit.
Royalton makes good on his threat by placing a bounty on Speed and suing Pop’s company for intellectual property infringement, but it’s not like Speed Racer is going to end with the bad guys winning. The story plays out as you’d expect: Speed wins the big race, and Royalton goes to jail. Along the way, there’s a lot of other convoluted subplots with Racer X and the Yakuza and Inspector Detector, but for the most part it’s, y’know, regular movie stuff.
Still, I think the choice to include incisive social commentary as medicine within a sugar rush of a movie is admirable. The way the Wachowskis answer “is my work worth doing if it’s in a corrupt system?” is by crafting a Hollywood studio movie, produced for no better reason than the IP is recognizable, and making it far more thoughtful and interesting than it ever needed to be.