SPEED RACER – Blu-ray review

When “Speed Racer” first appeared on the scene in the mid 1960s as a Japanese anime-inspired television cartoon series, I had already graduated from college and felt I was beyond such childish things. Since then, I’ve still not watched a complete episode of the old series nor any of the subsequent shows. As such, I came to the Wachowski brothers’ 2008 “Speed Racer” movie with a clean and, I hope, unbiased slate (disregarding my familiarity with their “Matrix” trilogy), neither a fan nor a detractor but an innocent bystander. It was for the better. I admit I had a degree of resistance to the movie, but I tried to keep an open mind. As a result I came away more impressed than I thought I would be, at least with the look of the film. Maybe it’s all flash and little substance, but there’s no denying the appeal of that flash, and its high-definition Blu-ray picture is as flashy as they come.

The Wachowskis, Andy and Larry, updated the old cartoon by making their new movie a combination of live action and CGI animation. Even though the two styles don’t always mesh, in the racing sequences they look mighty impressive. It’s like watching a neon-glowing, slot-car racing video game, full of bright lights, nonstop action, and crashes galore. In this regard, it ought to delight old fans of the series, and even I found myself fascinated by all the color and excitement, especially in high def.

In between the racing sequences, however, things are different. The plot is simplistic and intentionally clichéd. Apparently, all the familiar characters from the series are here, but the story line seems a mere afterthought to string the races together.

Emile Hirsch plays Speed Racer, the kid who grew up dreaming about cars. Hirsch looks the part and does his best with a boyish charm. Christina Ricci plays his longtime girlfriend, Trixie, and she’s a doll. Indeed, with her big eyes and short, dark hair she not only resembles the cartoon Trixie but the older cartoon character Betty Boop. And I mean that in a purely complimentary way; Ms. Ricci is wonderfully attractive in the role.

John Goodman plays Pops Racer, Speed’s father, who designs and builds racing cars, and Susan Sarandon plays Mom Racer. Both performers lend a dignity to the movie and a needed heart. Paulie Litt plays Spritle Racer, Speed’s mischievous little brother, who loves candy above all else. Scott Porter plays Rex Racer, Speed’s older brother, who died in a horrible racing-car crash some years earlier. Matthew Fox plays Racer X, a mysterious do-gooder driver. Kick Gurry plays Sparky, the Racer team’s mechanic. Richard Roundtree plays Ben Burns, a former champion driver. Ralph Herforth plays Jack “Cannonball” Taylor, a current Grand Prix racing champion. Benno Furman plays Inspector Detector, the official in charge of keeping racing on the up and up. And Roger Allum plays E.P. Arnold Royalton Esq., the rich, greedy president and chairman of the evil Royalton Industries, who wants Speed to race for his team. There are other players as well, too numerous to mention in a cast that outweighs the production needs, all of it indicative of the film’s overall bloat.

The actors do their part, but it’s really the special effects, the CGI graphics that surround everyone all the time, that stand out in the show. In order to connect the dots, the script has the iniquitous corporations manipulating all the races and drivers, with the pure-hearted Racer family out to buck the corruption. To be honest, while it is all fairly simplistic, as I said, there were times in the film when I found myself lost in the plot web of money and power grabs. It was like the Wachowskis’ final two “Matrix” films, where even though you knew basically what was going on, they kind of left you behind on occasion. Maybe the Wachowskis need to learn to tell a simple story more simply; I dunno.

The filmmakers link the new movie to the old television series by anchoring it to the past and the future at the same time, which can be a bit confusing. Clothing, hair, and furniture styles remain in the mid 1960s, while cars, architecture, and technology look to some indefinite time well to come. The movie refers to Ben Burns, for instance, as having won the ’43 Grand Prix. That would be about twenty-odd years before the mid sixties’ setting of the original TV show. But then Royalton mentions that in his youth he started his company using a Commodore 64, a home computer not in use until the early 1980s. I guess you’re not supposed to question the goofy time stage.

Speed’s Mach 5 racing car and the film’s various race tracks should impress fans. The car resembles the one in the cartoon, but the filmmakers bring it to life in full scale and in animation. The races themselves appear very cartoonish, intentionally cartoonish, with the tracks simulating not only today’s video games but older slot-car layouts, especially the elaborate ones so popular in the Sixties. (I had an old friend whose father once owned a slot-car operation back then in a building that formerly had been a grocery store. It was a massive arrangement of tracks, overpasses, scenery, and accessories, and the movie reminded me of it a lot.) The filmmakers light everything in glowing colors and pump up the sound to the threshold of pain to ensure we don’t take our eyes off the screen for a moment.

I found the racing sections a blast. There’s the opening race; then the centerpiece Casa Cristo Classic, where it’s not so much a race as a demolition derby in the desert; followed at the end by the World Racing League Grand Prix. These three races take up maybe half the film, and they are really the only parts I felt I needed to watch. Otherwise, the film is way too long. At 135 minutes, it’s at least twice as long as it should be.

Most of “Speed Racer” is remarkably silly, and other parts are almost indecipherable, but forget all that. It’s the graphics and lights and crashes and bells and whistles and little else that count. What’s more, there’s the music. Even though I can’t remember ever seeing the old TV show, I instantly recognized the “Speed Racer” theme song. Amazing, and kind of fun in itself.

Warner Bros. used a single-layer BD25 to hold the 135-minute movie, a tight squeeze, no doubt, what with extras and all. A VC-1, 1080p transfer finishes the job. The Wachowskis shot the movie digitally, using various types of digital cameras and, of course, they use a good deal of CGI animation, all of which shows up in eye-popping splendor in this 2.40:1 ratio widescreen picture. The colors are particularly bright and intense, maybe too bright and intense even for a cartoon movie like this one. Black levels are equally strong, setting off everything else a bit glaringly but appropriately. And definition and detailing are superb in high definition, with no sign of blur, fuzziness, halos, or artifacts that I noticed. In fact, the video is as extraordinarily unrealistic yet as perfectly polished as it could be. What’s more, since it’s a digital creation, something I don’t usually fancy, it’s as clean and clear as anything you’re likely to view on your television screen.

Maybe because Warner Bros. used only a 25-gigabyte disc for the movie and the extras, they didn’t have room left over for a lossless audio track, so we get only regular Dolby Digital 5.1. Maybe because they think the movie appeals mainly to kids that these youngsters wouldn’t care about lossless audio specs. Or maybe because they figured that the movie was not exactly a blockbuster hit, they didn’t want to spend any more money on the Blu-ray than necessary. However, this last point seems contradicted by the fact that they offer the movie in a rather elaborate three-disc set. I would have thought that for PR reasons alone, the studio might have gone with a dual-layer BD50 and TrueHD sound. Oh, well….

We have what we have, and that’s still plenty good. The best part of the DD 5.1 audio is its surround characteristics. Cars race around the room at full throttle and fireworks explode from literally all directions. By Dolby Digital standards, this is an excellent soundtrack. By lossless HD standards, though, I thought the overall sound was just a trifle bright and hard, and I rather missed the bass being as deep as I would have liked. Nevertheless, with good dynamics and pulse-pounding clarity, the sound fulfills its function in creating as much excitement as the visuals do in the film.

The Blu-ray package comes with three discs, something of a novelty in itself. Disc one contains the feature film, along with three featurettes in standard definition. The first featurette is “Spritle in the Big Leagues,” a fourteen-minute, behind-the-scenes tour of the movie set with actor Paulie Litt, who doesn’t say much but lets screen inserts speak for him. The second featurette is “Speed Racer Supercharged,” about fifteen minutes on the history of the cars and racetracks of the WRL. The third featurette is “Speed Racer: Kung-Fu Cinema,” a twenty-seven-minute, behind-the-scenes look at the special moviemaking process, the preliminary sketches, the CGI, the models, the racetracks, the blue screens, etc.

In addition to the featurettes, disc one includes thirty scene selections; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Disc two contains a racing game, “Speed Racer Crucible Challenge.” You choose the number of players, the player representing you, and the level of difficulty. Then you begin the road rally, raced over several different kinds of terrain. I found that without a joystick or wheel, the car you’re driving is difficult to control with just the arrow keys and enter button, and the car is hardly responsive at all. Also, the keep case notes that the game “may not play on certain players.” I don’t know which players it won’t play on; I guess you have to try it and find out. A few minutes in I got bored and gave up. I’m sure if you stick with it, you can master it. Now, here’s the thing: If I were making these decisions, I would have used disc two for a number of the extras and freed up some space on disc one for a lossless audio track. But who am I to make decisions.

Disc three contains a standard-definition digital copy of the film, “Windows Media-compatible only. Not compatible with Apple macintosh and iPod devices.” The three-disc Blu-ray slim-line case comes housed in a colorful slipcover.

Parting Shots:
“Speed Racer” seems to me a perfect movie for use with the “Next” button on your remote. It practically begs you to watch the racing sequences and skip over the stuff in between. In this regard, it’s a low-octane version of “Grand Prix,” where the competition was terrific but the connecting melodrama slowed everything down. So, if you just play the opening race, the Casa Cristo 5000, and the closing Grand Prix, you’ll get a heck of a lot of enjoyment out of this exceptionally colorful high-definition movie.