The original Speed Racer anime series from the late 60s is one of the earliest Anime shows to be brought to the US. Originally titles Mach GoGoGo in Japan, Speed Racer follows the exploits of Speed Racer (literally first name/last name) and his friends as they participate in races and adventures using the Mach 5 Super car. Stylistically, especially at the time, it was quite unique, with it’s unique Japanese animation style and look. Though live action adaptations of animated features don’t always work well, Speed Racer does it’s best to replicate the intense colorful style of the anime, and anime in general.
Fortunately for the movie, it’s the one thing that it succeeds at, and succeeds at very well. The visuals of this entire film, from start to finish, are pretty incredible. A lot of what makes it work where a lot of cartoon to live action fails is that it completely embraces it’s origin and never looks back. There’s no out of place realism to the way the cars move and literally glide around the track, there’s no punches pulled on the stunts or action. Even during the downtime off the track the sets are colorful and full of detail that’s both dense and simple at the same time, keeping with the base styling you’d likely see in an anime series.
Everything just meshes together to keep everything believable within he context of the fantastical race obsessed world presented to the viewer. There are also a lot of interesting Transitions used almost constantly throughout the film that help push this effect even farther. Overlays of announcers, and crowd watchers and other drivers sweep across the screen giving everything loads of atmosphere.
Visuals don’t really make a movie though, even a really pretty movie isn’t worth watching without some sort of plot. The general plot is essentially Speed Racer and his crew working their way up through the racer ranks to become the best racer in the world. Along the way there’s a few subplots involving Speed Racer’s brother who died in a race in the past, the mysterious Racer X and an evil corporation trying to use the race for nefarious purposes. There isn’t a lot of depth to anything going on here, but it gets a little complicated and the film itself is pretty non stop in it’s pace which makes things feel a little messy at times. It also makes the film feel a little long, but more because it’s kind of exhausting keeping up with the constant barrage of crazy visuals.
The cast also does a great job of selling the whole experience. In the same vein as the visuals, the cast does a pretty good job of selling the idea of being cartoonish in nature. John Goodman and Christina Ricci are both pretty good as Pops and Trixie as do the rest of the supporting cast. Emile Hirsch as Speed does a nice job of selling the Speed’s obsessive racing desire and need to be good as well. What really helps to is they all look the part.
Often with adaptations such as this there are “changes” done to modernize things or make them more hip. Or worse, the actors chosen look nothing like their original counter parts. A lot of what makes Speed Racer’s style work is that it sticks close to it’s roots. Sure, there’s a “new” Mach 6 race car, but the traditional Mach 5 is plenty present in this film and the new car does a good job of keeping the spirit of the Mach 5 without going overboard in it’s redesign.
Speed Racer isn’t a movie that’s going to win any awards for depth, though it’s definitely a technically impressive film. It’s almost too visually busy at times honestly. It’s still worth checking out if you can handle the predictably simple plot that holds it all together.