Mention Hollywood adaptations of anime series and films and people generally recoil in horror. It is true that there have been several false dawns, The Guyver and Fist of the North Star had the live action treatment in the 90's, but failed to set the world on fire. In recent years there has been a revival of the anime adaptation (to general indifference from both anime fans and the general public), and the first of this new wave was Speed Racer.
For UK fans the anime series Speed Racer is generally little
known outside a few references in American cartoons like Family Guy and
Dexter's Laboratory. However, in America it was one of the most popular
early anime imports in the 1960s and '70's, inspiring a love for racing in a
generation of American children. It certainly inspired the Wachowski Brothers,
and following their success with the Matrix trilogy they decided to turn their
hands to a live-action Speed Racer.
The film's plot is pretty straightforward. The Racer family run their own racing team, Pops Racer (John Goodman) and Sparky (Kick Gurry) build and maintain the car, Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon) and her youngest son Spritle (Paulie Litt) provide support, and the racing duty falls to middle son Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch). Speed has been extremely successful in lower league racing, and his talent has attracted the attention of Mr Royalton (Roger Allam), head of the largest motor racing team in the world. Royalton gives Speed the ultimate opportunity - join Royalton's team and experience the best support and guaranteed success, but doing so
would mean leaving his family behind and would probably be the end
of his family's team. Pops Racer is against the move, he has still
never forgiven himself for letting his eldest son Rex leave to take
part in a race that led to his death and doesn't want his second son
leaving his protective wing. However, Royalton isn't about to take
no for an answer, and gives Speed an ultimatum - join, or his career
and his family's team is finished. Speed has a difficult choice to
make, and even with the support of his girlfriend Trixie (Christina
Ricci) and the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), the pressure put on
him by Royalton's racers could lead him to the same fate as his
Speed Racer in HD is a stunning experience. It looks fantastic, the hyperreal neon and metal racetracks, the spectacular buildings, the bright colours and flashy effects. It's jaw-dropping, and the level of design and detail crammed into the film is superb. The sheer love the Wachowski's have for the Speed Racer anime is instantly apparent in everything from the cars to the characters. The casting is excellent, with actors seemingly chosen for their similarity to the original characters rather than because of their star power. John Goodman is spot-on as Pops Racer and Roger Allam does his best Tim Curry impression as Royalton, whilst Emile
Hirsch is surprisingly effective in a role which lends itself to blandness. The faithfulness to the source manga and anime is remarkable, and it is something none of the other recent western adaptations have managed to rival. The attention to detail even goes as far as using the original music and replicating the costumes, cars and over-the-top racing action as closely as possible. For fans of the original the film is a joy, but that's one of the problems.
The original series is over 40 years old, and the original audience has moved on. The Wachowskis have made a childrens film which is completely faithful to the series that inspired it, but the people who used to watch that series didn't want to see a kids film in the cinema, and their children were generally too old for it. Children who would love the film didn't know what Speed Racer was so didn't go to see it either. As such the film flopped and was unfairly labelled a turkey. It has other faults as well to be fair, the plot is simplistic and some of the comic asides are a bit too child-targetted to appeal much to adults. Spritle and his pet chimp are pretty annoying, and it is very cartoony - particularly in Royalton's headquarters. However, it is massive fun. The races are exciting and the action is fast and furious, the characters are generally excellent and it's an easy and highly enjoyable ride to the somewhat predictable conclusion.
On DVD I'd recommend Speed Racer as an
enjoyable if messy film with a predictable story that is pitched
somewhere between the audience that wants to see it and the audience
that should. However, on Blu-Ray the sheer quality of the HD
visuals brings back the adult technophiles, and allows you to see
the film as it was meant to be seen. It can't be understated how
much of an essential Blu-Ray purchase this is, it's a fun and hugely
entertaining romp and it is the only Blu-Ray Animetion has
seen that really shows what the technology can do. If you want to
prove how good HD or Blu-Ray is, this is the film to do it with. To
be honest you'll probably enjoy it too.
There are a trio of featurettes alongside the usual trailers, one focuses on Speed's rivals and their cars, whilst another is more of a 'making of' which looks at the techniques used to the almost balletic racing action. The final featurette is a tour round the Speed Racer production studio hosted by Paulie Litt, the actor who plays Spritle. Also included is an interactive game controlled with the Blu-Ray remote, which is about as good as it sounds. Not bad though.