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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Speed Racer
Speed Racer
Warner Bros. // PG // September 16, 2008
List Price: $28.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Michael Zupan | posted September 1, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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I love the work that the Wachowski brothers produce, but there's something they never cared to improve themselves on, and Speed Racer proves it. The Wachowski brothers are experts at visual mastery, but they make every film longer than it needs to be. When are these guys going to learn to edit their work, or look at a script and say 'this part isn't really needed'? I find myself torn in half over their latest offering, because while the second half is fun and quite enjoyable, the first half drags along as a lifeless history lesson.

Speed Racer is the next in line on the family tree to join the World Racing League. Speed grew up with nothing but racing on the brain. A big part of this was due to his brother Rex.

Rex was the driver of the Mach 5 when Speed was a kid, and he was one of the best. He was living the dream as a famed racer that wasn't backed by a money hungry corporation. The family dream came crashing down as Rex earned a reputation for being crooked, and eventually died in a fatal crash.

When Speed is fully grown and showing the same promise his brother Rex did some years ago, he's offered an opportunity for fame and fortune on a team backed by a wealthy corporation. Raised to fear large corporations, Speed declines and is spun into a world that's parallel to everything he knows. Races are fixed, and all that ever mattered had everything to do with money and stocks. Racing was never about talent, or honor. Speed decides to stand up against the corruption and change the world through driving.

A mysterious driver known only as Racer X enlists the help of Speed to expose the conspiracy to the public, ending the corruption once and for all. In order to do that though, Speed needs to participate in a couple of extremely dangerous underground races, the same which claimed the life of his brother.

It's a plot that sounds simple enough on paper, but the Wachowskis felt the need to beef up the film's length for some odd reason. Why an idea as uncomplicated as Speed Racer needs to top two hours is beyond me. If they cut out the heavy financial history of the World Racing League, and simplified the 'evil corporation' angle, this film easily could have been a fun hour and a half of jaw dropping popcorn fun. Instead, we have to endure what the Wachowskis must have considered a brilliant blend between business factoids only adults would care about, and a fun family film.

Speed Racer never makes the audience connect with its main characters until close to the end, and if it ever tries to make the audience sit on the edge their seats, it fails miserably. This is partly due to the style of the film and its determination to stay as physically true to the source material as possible. The cars bounce off each other and spin around so much, there's never a feel of any real danger. The movie is a living breathing cartoon, so we learn to forget about the notion of danger.

The cast is fantastic and they all portray their characters extremely well. The problem is that they're overlooked by the true star of the film - the special effects. They bring the anime vision of Speed Racer to life with a quality that's meant to look unrealistic, and it's taken to the max in every frame. Even the scenes that don't focus on stylized racing are loaded with eye candy. The race scenes are so fast and overblown with effect after eye popping effect, you feel like you could have a seizure from watching them! I know that sounds like a bad thing but believe me; it's quite insane in a very, very good way.

As I said at the beginning of this review, the first half of the film drags because of the story, but the second half is loaded with action that's mindless, highly stylized, and a hell of a lot of fun. So that's where I find myself torn. Overall the film as a whole has a lot of pacing issues and needed quite a bit more than just a trim. Yet after watching the film and experiencing the thrills Speed Racer offered during the latter half, I actually find myself wanting to watch it again, and again.

Aside from the amazing visuals that are going to knock your socks off, Speed Racer can never find its true voice. It's pulling in one direction to be dark and sinister for the adults, and in the other direction it's a fun kid's film. Catering to a certain audience usually doesn't make for a good movie, but Speed Racer is the exception. The entire movie feels like an anime brought to life and I don't think anybody is going into this film to sit for an unnecessary one-hundred and thirty minutes. All a film like this has to do is deliver the goods and keep everything else to a minimum. Unfortunately we're left with a movie that never knows what its true calling was supposed to be. This film should have had a distinct voice for a specific audience. What we have instead, is the feeling that we really have two movies mixed into one.


Video

The picture quality was something that was hard to determine. There's so much going on during the lightning fast scenes that it's almost impossible to focus on one area and judge what's going on accurately.

I did find the intentional over-saturation of colors to really pop in a way that I didn't quite expect for a standard definition release. On very few occasions in a very minimal way, the over-saturation did seem to create some blocking in solid colors that varied due to shadowing. The fast racing scenes have a tendency to create pixilation if you freeze frame, but it's something that's not really noticeable while you're watching the film. Something else that I notice consistent with transfers from crisp high definition digital sources is some minor jaggies from time to time, but only with thinly detailed objects such as hair.

If there are any other flaws, it's nothing I could see. Despite the paragraph above depicting some minor issues, I assure you they are minor and the transfer looks very good overall. When things are in motion it's very difficult to pick these things up. The only other problem I could think of was the constant distraction of wondering just how much better it would look on Blu-Ray.

Speed Racer seems to make standard definition meet its match. The minor issues about blocking and pixilation I mentioned are most likely due to the blurring speed of the film itself, not the result of a 'less than' transfer.


Audio

The Dolby Digital 5.1 track provided me with exactly the experience I was expecting. There were a lot of scenes where race announcers were moving across the screen from right to left or vice-versa, and the front channels were constantly sliding across the spectrum. The music and races were roaring all around me with the rear channels, and I got a bit of 'boom' from the bass. A film as highly stylized as Speed Racer is all about getting you in the 'anime brought to life' experience. With a film that's all about presentation and effects it's only suitable the sound comes out as good as this.

Also available in Dolby Digital 5.1 are tracks in French and Spanish. Subtitles are included in English, French, and Spanish.


Extras

Spritle in the Big Leagues is fourteen and a half minutes with the kid that plays Spritle showing us around behind the scenes. Everything is touched upon very briefly, from showing us one of the very few physical sets, computer design, martial arts training, and other various works for the film that involved artists. It really doesn't go too in depth, but it's not like it's a big secret. Green screen and a lot of computers are what did the trick. A little more information would have been nice that wasn't as obvious.

Speed Racer: Supercharged! plays as a fifteen minute documentary that explains the background of the World Racing League. It takes itself pretty seriously so it's not a lot of fun to watch.

We get a look at how some of the tracks were designed around the environment they inhabit, and we get a look at a lot of vehicle guts and what they are and what they do.

I know the Wachowskis take their work pretty seriously, but this just shows yet again that they don't know when to quit. Are kids really interested in watching this? I think they'd be bored to tears.

As far as real information goes for the adults, you're not going to find it here. Would you believe there's no commentary on this edition of Speed Racer? With the film feeling as lost as it does, I would think the Wachowskis would want to explain their throught process with us.

Instead we're treated to a code to download a digital copy of the film. A sticker on the front of the slip cover says that an additional charge applies for this as well. I know this isn't a selling point for most people, but at least it's a code with the option to buy and not a coaster disc we were forced to pay for.


Overall

Speed Racer does an excellent job at bringing its anime origins to life on digital film. The first half of the movie is a rough start, but the second half ditches it all for the popcorn movie fun we expect. Where it fails is at its attempt to accomplish it 'all'. It tries too hard to be a film that's rich in depth with a story about money and greed while still trying to be a family film that's fun for the kids. The Wachowskis have self-indulged and played every angle. Unfortunately it makes Speed Racer feel like a confused mess. Other Wachowski films have been geared towards adults and too much of that is implemented here. When they mish-mash it with a kids flick the end result is a sub-par effort on each end of the spectrum.

I recommend you rent it before you decide on a purchase. Everyone should see Speed Racer at least once for its incredible use of special effects and high octane racing. The style is fast and in your face and I honestly couldn't take my eyes off of it. An inferior movie it may be overall, but it's certainly an experience everyone should see. If you're not one that can justify watching any film no matter how pretty it may look, then this one isn't for you.
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