Speed Racer (2008) – My Favorite Superhero Cartoon

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Film Crit Hulk’s Speed Racer post: http://badassdigest.com/2013/11/20/hulks-favorite-movies-speed-racer-2008/

The Wackowski’s 2008 movie Speed Racer is one of my alltime favorite movies and, I think, my favorite superhero movie as well. It may not seem like a conventional superhero movie, since the main character’s so-called power is just being the best racer in the world, and it certainly doesn’t resemble the kind of superhero movie we’ve been getting used to which tries to contextualize heroes within a modern, realistic setting. No, Speed Racer is a cartoon in the purest sense, in that its world resembles ours enough to be relatable, but operates less realistically than even the alien worlds of Guardians of the Galaxy.

Many critics would call Speed Racer a cartoon because so much of it is made of computer animation, but I think what really makes it a cartoon is how it doesn’t even pretend to take place in our version of reality. As well, I think it’s important to have this mindset about the movie, because it will absolutely destroy your suspension of disbelief if you expect it to operate logically. Everything in Speed Racer operates on the emotional and symbolic level before it bothers to work on the rational level.

The best way I can describe a superhero is as someone with an incredible, one-of-a-kind talent, who chooses to use that talent to save other people. By this definition, not only is Speed Racer a superhero, his movie is also one of the best superhero origin stories put to film. Because in spite of the idealistic cartoon world and storyline, this movie is more honest than any other about how a superhero is born and bred.

Film Crit Hulk described the film as an “amalgamation” in his post about why it’s one of his favorite movies. He points out how the film combines so many different elements and tones, yet manages to hold together because it combines those elements so sure-handedly. To expand on his statement, I would add that the film is an amalgamation of all the things that make Speed Racer who he is. The film combines all of these elements in order to give us the portrait of the ultimate racer–to show us what this man is made of.

You could almost boil the entire movie down to its opening and closing fifteen-minute scenes. Each of them uses a race to reflect on Speed Racer’s life–who he is, and why he is that person. Both scenes are a stream of consciousness that jumps all over Speed’s life, giving us the portrait of an artist of a young man in a way not unlike how that book does so.

Speed Racer is obsessed with racing because his older brother was one of the best, and his father was the one who built his car. He’s been born and bred for racing, making him the most natural talent imaginable. We understand early on that Speed is going to take the racing world by storm and probably become the sport’s greatest champion–but the rest of the movie is to inform us of his character. Through his loving family, his girlfriend who has always accepted him, and even their dedicated mechanic, we see how this character has been, and continues to be, shaped by his surroundings.

Arguably the most important scenes in the movie are each one that Speed spends alone with his family. His mother’s speech to him about how she regards his racing as an art–his father’s speech about how he always has a home to return to–Trixie’s speech about how she’ll follow him through any danger–even his little brother’s rebellious spirit and his mechanic’s straightforward dedication rub off on him. Without each of these people in his life, Speed would never become the man that he does. These speeches are what guide him to the end, lifting his spirits and affirming his character so that he can make the right decisions. We are reminded again and again that Speed Racer has to ultimately make the decisions himself, and sometimes the decisions he makes even put him at odds with the wishes of his family–but we can perfectly understand why he would make those decisions, because we understand what kind of person he is, and what kind of family he comes from.

In a way, you could almost call this movie a harsh display of talent. Speed Racer is a hero that we can look up to and try to be like–but like any true superhero, there’s no question that luck and talent give him the power to do what he does. In a more realistic sense than most, he is born into his superpowers, insofar as having been born into a situation that would produce the kind of person that he becomes. It doesn’t exactly suggest that we can all be like Speed Racer with hard work and dedication, because Speed Racer was talented from childhood.

However, the film does teach us the importance of surrounding yourself with positive influences. Speed Racer’s family is so strong because, as the villain puts it in the beginning, they have perfect chemistry. “Something other teams put millions of dollars into trying to replicate.” I think it’s important that Speed Racer’s family does not just consist of his blood relations–his girlfriend Trixie and mechanic Sparky, and even the family’s pet monkey, are every bit a part of his family as anyone else, to the point that their presence is unquestioned throughout family scenes in the movie. This movie isn’t so much a statement on family in the purest sense as it is a statement on one’s environment. We see so much of how Speed Racer grew up, what he was like as a kid, and how his life played out, so that we understand the influence his environment had on him.

Of course, the central theme of how an artist is bred isn’t the only thing that makes this movie awesome. More than anything, it’s the intensely bright and colorful artistry of the movie itself that makes it such a blast to watch. Yes, Speed Racer is often corny–yes, the green screens are REALLY obvious a lot of the time, and yes there are tacky shots everywhere. But it’s easy to see that the film knows how cheesy it is and just doesn’t give a damn. It would rather show you intense and awesome versions of events that capture their emotional core than it would show you a realistic version. This style may not appeal to everyone, but as someone who’s intensely interested in cartoons, I think Speed Racer gives me one of the most visually resplendent cartoon experiences available.

Not to mention it’s just damn well put together. Some viewers will no doubt find the spastic tone shifts and significant running time a bit jarring, but to me it all just flows so wonderfully that I enjoyed every minute of it. The way the movie constantly cuts back and forth between tension and silliness is a lot like the directing style of Osamu Tezuka–which may be culturally outdated but, I think, is only good or bad as a matter of preference. When the show does get into its incredible highs of tension during the racing sequences, it’s balls-tighteningly gripping, with action scenes that put ones in every other movie to shame. Even fellow animated racing movie extravaganza Redline would face tight competition for intensity against Speed Racer. During the final race, which Film Crit Hulk describes as one of the ultimate examples of transcendence in film, I find myself breaking into a sweat every time I watch it. Even if I didn’t like the rest of the movie, the opening and closing races are so perfectly constructed that they’d be endlessly watchable on their own.

Speed Racer wasn’t critically or commercially well-received when it came out, and that’s not really surprising. No one expected this movie to be good, so most people didn’t watch it with that expectation. They went in expecting a silly kids’ movie with way too much CG, and to be fair, they did get that. Add to that the weird tone shifts and spastic energy, and it’s easy to imagine critics giving into their expectations and turning off their brains. An adult audience would too readily see the bright colors and over-the-top, childish action scenes, and think it was just a dumb kids’ movie. But if you actually watch Speed Racer like a real movie, and take the time to buy into its wild premise, it’ll take you for a ride through not only some of the most stunning spectacle Hollywood has ever produced, but also a heartfelt portrait of the superhero as a young man.

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