Friday, October 26, 2012

The magic of "Speed Racer"

A list on io9 praising the movie "Speed Racer" brought some memories back, and I decided to write an article about it. Which you just started about reading. So, let's hook you a bit with a personal story after this dreary introduction. I remember that when I went to the cinema into some movie (I don't remember which), the trailer for "Speed Racer" went over the screen, and it just was a slug-fest of weirdness. The bright colors, the style, the ambience, and you didn't know what it was about after it was over. I had never heard of the franchise before. My then-girlfriend and today's wife didn't like the trailer, and so I forgot about it, although I found it interesting. Then, sometime later - two or three years - I found the DVD for a ridiculoulsy low price, something around four or five Euro. I picked it up and put it on the shelf and only watched it out of boredom about half a year later. I have rewatched it at least three times since. 

They guy is, in all seriousness, called "Speed", surname "Racer".

So, while you can do a movie about an anime that centered around a family of engineers and pilots, including a fat little boy and his pet ape, nobody expects you to hit the tone of the anime, like, exactly. Let me just give you a brief introduction to the world of Speed Racer, because that works quite fast. There are races with very fast cars and little rules. The cars have gadgets like being able to jump or to do dirty tricks (only bad guys, good guys win without them). The Racers are a family producing their own cars and piloting them, chief among them by their eldest son Speed. There are Pa and Ma Racer, there's the little brother Spritle and the eldest brother Rex, who died some time ago in a mysterious accident. Oh, and Spritle has an ape named Chim-Chim for no apparent reason. Speed's girl-friend Trixie helps out in many girlish and yet tough ways. The bad guys are the big corporations who aren't in the racing for the sake of the sport but for the money and rig races. Speed needs to face them with his Indie car and gets help by stalwart Inspector Detector (yeah, that's his name and title, for real) and the mysterious Racer X, who - Spoiler alert - later turns out to be missing Rex. Who would have guessed? And yeah, that's basically it. 

Matthew Fox's best role so far
What really lifts the movie up is the seriousness with which it transports the anime style to the big screen. The world is ridiculously colorful, the races defy any law of physics and there are no constraints whatsoever that would exist in a real world, like the need to work for money or mandatory classroom attendance. There are those driving the races, and those watching them, and they don't do anything else. Then there's an evil corporation with the main task of being evil. In the beginning of the film, the backstory is told - Rex Racer is a cool die who died investigating the evil corporation Royalton, and by investigating I mean driving a car real fast. Speed then took up the job and drove the cars his father built. The whole initial sequence cries out kid's movie, because it's just so much a dream come true - the hobby you love, racing, drowns out everything else, especially including boring schoolwork, and instead of a good spanking, Ma and Pa encourage it and you grow up to be a star. Who wouldn't want that? And the whole ambience is colored like chewing-gum for good measure.

Nothing says "progressive" like a pink helicopter matching your fingernails.
When you delve into the gorgeous animations, you need to have some good watching skills, because the movie zooms and races through the animated landscapes in some fury. That's a shame, because they really are worth looking at. While some stretches are very bland, others are full of lights and colors, blinking and distracting you where you go, and amidst that visual chaos cars are racing with some 300mph. That the movie manages to let you follow this insane action is proof of some editing skills, I tell you. 

Only some of these cards are flying through the air by accident.
But even the ricidulous story that could be followed by a five-year-old possesses an attention to detail that is astonishing. You can make out stuff in the background that reveals a design thoroughly fleshed out. io9 nailed it stating it mixes "cyberpunk science fiction, low-tech cartoons, and a 1940s automobile fantasy where machines represent freedom". And really, look at this panorama view here:

Take that, Willie Wonka! You can't compete.

Speed Racer is a kid's movie first and foremost, but it is also a real fun experience for adults with an eye out for visually interesting stuff. To my best knowledge, there is nothing like this. When comics are adapted for the cinema, usually there are stark differences to the actual comic book, and when they use animes for advertisment purposes (looking at you, Michael Bay), normally not much besides some core ideas survives the process. Ususally, I would say this is a good thing because conventional wisdom says that the more faithful to the letter of the book an adaption is, the more it is prone to fail. But in this case, conventional wisdom is defied. Speed Racer is art, more than worth taking a look. Even if you don't like the style, you should be awed by what they achieved here.


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