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Speed Racer (2008)

Warner Home Video
DVD Released: 9/16/2008

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2
Video: 1/2
Audio: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 9/4/2008

For those of you who aren't in the know, let's get you up to speed. (Ha.Ha.) Speed Racer was an animated series which premiered in Japan in 1967. It was brought to the U.S. several years later and became a staple in syndication. Most any male member of Generation X can sing the theme song without a second thought. The show had a certain amount of charm, and there's no denying that the Mach 5 is one of the coolest cars in entertainment history. Yet the dubbing on the show was atrocious and while the multi-plane animation was no doubt complicated in 1967, it looks very dated today. So, when it was announced that The Wachowski Brothers were going to make a feature film version of the show, I never once thought, "They're going to bite off more than they can chew." Ah, how Speed Racer proved me wrong.

Emile Hirsch stars as the titular character in Speed Racer, one of the best drivers on the racing circuit. Speed races for his father, Pops Racer (John Goodman) and the independent Racer Racing team. While Speed is good, he's always lived in the shadow of his brother, Rex, who was killed in a racing accident. After winning a big race, Speed is approached by E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam), an incredibly wealthy tycoon who owns a racing team. Royalton invites Speed to join his team and reap the benefits that his empire can offer. However, Speed, loyal to the family, is hesitant to accept this offer. Speed soon learns that a state of corruption lies under the shiny veneer of racing, and instead of racing for a checkered flag, he's soon racing for his life.

Just in case you don't recognize the name, The Wachowski Brothers are the filmmakers who brought us The Matrix movies, and that simple fact will drive the rest of this review. If you've seen The Matrix, then you know that these directors have a great sense of cinematic vision and style. Just as The Matrix showed us things that we hadn't seen before, so does Speed Racer. As with films like Sin City or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Speed Racer was shot on sets using a lot of green-screen and minimal "real" backdrops. This gave The Wachowski's the freedom to put their cast into any situation that they desired and the result is an exercise in pure cinema. Simply put, Speed Racer is a colorful exercise in pure cinema. The Brothers have created a world populated by dazzling primary colors, where everything is bright and eye-catching. The movie makes liberal use of wipes and visual effects where two actions are taking place on-screen at once. Using this technique, every facet of the story in on-screen and nothing is left to the imagination. The race scenes are a whirling dervish of special effects, where we watch both CGI race cars and the actors placed in fake cockpits with a sea of effects rolling behind them.

But, if you've seen The Matrix sequels, then you know that The Wachowskis have a hard time telling a story, and this is where Speed Racer falls apart. They have taken this very simple concept and story and blown it into a 135 minute confuse-fest. It's no surprise that there's an evil race team which wants to recruit Speed in the movie, but when everyone suddenly turns evil, the movie begins to spin out of control. The film's pacing is off as well. The movie opens in the middle of a race and we learn Speed's life-story through flashbacks during that race. While this is a unique cinematic storytelling technique, it will also be very confusing to some viewers, especially younger ones. Following this, there are two more races in the film. However, the scenes between races become very bogged down and the dialogue, while not entirely laughable as some have claimed, is nonetheless uninspired. I didn't count, but it felt as if Speed says less than 100 words in the movie. Then, we have the races themselves. While the middle race is a somewhat standard road-race, the first and last races are held on metal tracks which resemble roller-coasters. The quick editing and constantly flying cars in these races is presumably supposed to create a feeling of kinetic energy. Instead, it makes it nearly impossible to tell what's going on. This technique may have been easier on the eyes in the theater, but at home, the races are just a blur.

It's clear that The Wachowski Brothers put a lot of work into Speed Racer. The attention to detail in the film is impressive, especially the things which are lifted directly from the show, such as Speed's outfit (complete with scarf!). And, as would be hoped, the Mach 5 is very cool. Perhaps, they put too much work into the movie. Speed Racer could have been a great 90-minute film -- a little story, some awesome races, and bam, you've got a hit. As it stands, the movie goes on for far too long and is undecipherable at times. It's almost as if The Wachowski's didn't want to be accused of making an effects film with no story, so they through in too much plot. Trust me, if done correctly, we would have been happy with an effects film.

Speed Racer takes the checkered flag on DVD courtesy of Warner Home Video. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image here looks fantastic, as the picture is very sharp and clear. There is no grain and no defects from the source material. The colors are the true star of this movie, and they look great here. The blacks, such as Racer X's outfit look fine against the colorful background and the image is never overly dark. I noted no overt artifacting, but the image did blur at the edges in some shots. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. This track is very impressive, as it offers active surround and subwoofer effects during the race scenes. As the cars "whoosh" by, we hear them pass from the center and front channels past us to the rear. The crashes and explosions are greeted with appropriate bass from the sub. The stereo effects are well-placed and add to the experience.

The Speed Racer DVD contains only two special features. "Spritle in the Big Leagues" (15 minutes) shows actor Paulie Litt touring the set. Following a brief skit with Producer Joel Silver, Litt visits the prop shop, meets the chip wrangler, sneaks onto a green-screen set, bothers the people in the art department, visits the visual effects artists, watches stunt rehearsal, and finally sees how costumes are made. Litt's wandering is sort of interesting, but the best part of this piece are the "pop-up" facts which appear, giving us all kinds of information about the movie. "Speed Racer: Supercharged" (16 minutes) is a faux-documentary which examines the race teams featured in the movie and what makes their individual cars special. We get animated schematics of each vehicle...all of which all sounds made up.

Warner Home Video has also brought Speed Racer to Blu-ray Disc. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains a VC-1 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 25 Mbps. The image here looks amazing and really brings home the visual acrobatics at work in this movie. The picture is very sharp and clear, showing no traces of grain or defects from the source material. The clarity of the picture is truly impressive, and the picture is neither soft nor does it show artifacting. While this is great, the colors really sell the transfer. It was obvious from the DVD that the colors were the star of the movie, but they nearly leap off of the screen here, and they never bleed into one another. The picture has great depth and the near 3-D effect adds to the film. The video on this Blu-ray could make this your next demo disc. But, you won't feel the same way about the audio. The Disc carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which runs at 48 kHz and 640 kbps. So, essentially, this is the same audio which was found on the DVD. The track offers nice stereo and surround effects and the car crashes are punctuated by effective subwoofer. But, one has to wonder why Warner would drop the ball like this. Why give the movie a great video transfer and then give it standard-def audio? While the movie has its problems, a lossless audio track would have made this a home theater demo essential.

The Speed Racer Blu-ray Disc not only contains the same extras found on the DVD, but a few more as well. "Speed Racer: Car Fu" (28 minutes) takes us into the look of the film. Visual effects artists, digital artists, and designers discuss the look of the film and the car designs. They then talk about the unique style of racing introduced into the film. Next, we see how layering shots created the look of the film, and how special techniques were used to make some shots. (Footage of real locations were used as a jumping off point for certain scenes.) The best part is seeing the actors sitting in the mock-up cars. Throughout the piece, the speakers talk about The Wachowski Brothers, but they are nowhere to be found here. The Blu-ray also comes packaged with a DVD which features the "Speed Racer Crucible Challenge" game.

Review Copyright 2008 by Mike Long